MMGM and #IMWAYR (1/18/2021): Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson
(Update [6/22/2021]: I moved the section at the beginning of the post to the end of the post so the book cover, not my random photos, would show up in my blog archive. Thanks!)
|This is such a beautiful—and horribly|
depressing, once you look at it—cover.
The illustration is by Stephanie Singleton.
About a year ago, I read, utterly loved, and reviewed what is likely Jacqueline Woodson's best-known book, an MG memoir in verse and Newbery Honor recipient called Brown Girl Dreaming. Despite realizing from this book alone that Woodson clearly has an incredible talent at writing MG books, I did not read anything else by her until now. Back in September, the wonderful bloggers Shaye Miller at The Miller Memo and Lisa Maucione at Literacy On The Mind recommended this book, which just debuted that month, and following further reminders by Cheriee Weichel at Library Matters, I finally got around to reading it and getting it reviewed!
This synopsis is grim, so be prepared. The father of Before the Ever After's protagonist, ZJ (short for Zachariah Johnson, Jr.), is—surprise, surprise—Zachariah Johnson, a famous professional American football player. ZJ loves his father as any child would love a great parent, but he is also quite proud of his father's success and resulting fame. But ZJ's father isn't acting like himself—he's forgetting where he is or who his own son is, he's having episodes of anger, and he's suffering from awful headaches. The doctors are struggling to figure out what is going on, as the story is set back when our understanding that football's frequent concussions cause chronic traumatic encephalitis (CTE) was minimal. ZJ is struggling watching his own father descend into "the ever after," but with the help of his three best friends, the music he writes, and the support of his mother and family, he finds himself able to handle whatever comes next.
One of the things that drew me to Before the Ever After was the fact that I was already grappling with lots of bad feelings while watching this year's season of American pro football. I often watch football with my family despite the fact that I have barely any idea what is going on in the game. I don't really know why, to be honest, though I suspect it has to do with the fact that, in this time of loneliness, it is nice to do something that you know other people are doing and enjoying as well. (I believe that is why I keep watching Saturday Night Live every week even though it is rarely funny and occasionally offensive.) I must say, though, it is really hard to watch football and feel like a good person. There was the Washington ******** (now temporarily called the Washington Football Team) refusing to change their ridiculously racist name until the pressure was too much to bear. (Your move, Kansas City Chiefs.) There
was is all of the domestic violence among players in the NFL. (Remember when they aired all of those "No More" ads about domestic violence? Then there was, in fact, more, even among the players, so they just stopped airing the ads.) There's the objectification of women via the cheerleaders on the sidelines of every game. There are the hilarious "anti-racist" ads the NFL has been airing that ring hollow without an apology to Colin Kaepernick—because nothing says anti-racist like ruining a Black man's career after he spoke up. And then there's the CTE. (Which the NFL also made a bunch of hollow response-ads to—"we're making better helmets at our state-of-the-art research facility, blah blah blah, we are rich thanks to the agony of others, etc.") Our understanding of CTE is new, but CTE itself is not—there are decades and decades of agonizing brain degeneration and traumatized families that have led to every football game we watch today. (Woodson paints a heartbreaking—really, heartstabbing is a better word—picture of a boy named Everett who dreams of playing pro football. Watching ZJ try to support him as he learns the true fate of those who play pro football is horrifying. We are causing CTE in more and more innocent people every week and every season.) The point is, I was already feeling plenty depressed about football, so it felt like a good time to read a book like this one.
Before the Ever After is a beautiful book, and I want to take the time this book deserves to point out some of the many things that it does really well. First of all, the central focus of this book, on ZJ's relationship with his dad in the face of this illness, is executed very well. Woodson has clearly researched and thought deeply about the subject matter here. One of the difficulties that ZJ faces is that his father is not constantly in a state of utter confusion or pain. Some days, he is like his normal self. Other days...he is not. ZJ's wondering of which version of his father he will end up seeing is a sort of pain I would never have thought of without reading this book. We also see that, throughout this whole experience, ZJ does not just feel sorrow, but fear. And not just a general fear, but the specific fear of seeing his father angry and confused, completely unlike himself. Imagine seeing someone you love repeating themselves over and over again, or yelling from their own fear and confusion, or even hurting themselves accidentally. It sounds like something straight out of a horror movie, but for ZJ, it is a part (an awful part, to be sure) of his life. In general, Woodson paints a painful picture of what it is like to have someone who cares about you and who you care about taken away from you too soon. And yet, Woodson takes great care to temper the pain in the story using elements which I will discuss next.
This book is about ZJ's father, but it is also about ZJ. And Woodson makes sure that ZJ remains far from overshadowed in this book. One of the aspects of this story that I really liked is ZJ's love of music, inspired in him by his father. ZJ and his dad have a hobby of writing songs together, and, also thanks to his father, ZJ is able to play them on the guitar. Even in his own spare time, ZJ writes songs or improvises melodies. Music serves as a lot of things in this story: as a vehicle for connecting ZJ and his father, even during his illness; as something for ZJ to listen to and enjoy as pain rages all around; as something for ZJ to create while working through his own pain; and as something that rushes through ZJ's brain and memories whether he asks it to or not. I don't have much else more to say here, but you'd be surprised how much music is used to characterize ZJ and accent this story in general.
I also have to praise ZJ's relationship with his three best friends, Ollie, Darry, and Daniel. MG books tend to be a wonderful place where stereotypes and useless social norms are broken down, but for some reason, the stereotype that boys cannot care about people or have sincere relationships/friendships with others is a stereotype that rears its ugly head again and again and again. It may just be that I've been thinking about this a lot lately, but I was really happy to see that, as much as ZJ and his friends enjoy stereotypically masculine roughhousing and daring activities (or at least Daniel in particular does), he and his friends are not afraid to both express their pain and help each other through it. Although there are a few teensy spots I might have changed, I do think that even people who have been unfortunately exposed to some of these irritating stereotypes previously will be able to both see themselves in ZJ and his friends and also learn from them how to have better, more genuine interpersonal relationships.
One last super-teensy paragraph! I was planning to write a big, long spiel here, but I'm out of energy, so I'll just say that Jacqueline Woodson's writing in this book is absolutely fantastic. I recently read an interview on Natalie Aguirre's blog, Literary Rambles, with the verse author Carol Coven Grannick, who pointed out that authors should really think about precisely why their book needs to be in verse and what that would add to the story; it has to be more than a random choice. I found myself thinking about this comment as I reviewed this book, because this story would really be very different in prose. Woodson deftly uses verse to do many things: to depict pain succinctly without dwelling on it, to illustrate the meaning of day-to-day events in ZJ's life, to show ZJ's insight without making him excessively wise for a child, and to do many more things I could not possibly explain or even understand.
All in all, Before the Ever After is a beautiful and important story. Within a verse structure recognizable from Brown Girl Dreaming (and, I would assume, Woodson's other books), Jacqueline Woodson tells a unique, heartbreaking, and valuable story. This book definitely teaches you about the pain that football players and their families have been dealing with due to CTE, but it also gives you a beautiful look into the life of a young boy who finds the beauty in a life marred by suffering. This book is absolutely wonderful, and as long as you have the requisite emotional tolerance, I highly recommend you pick up a copy!
My rating is: Really good!
Happy Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day! Before we get to today's post, I wanted to share with you all that I have finally finished my bookcase reorganization! Behold!
Now see how many books I still need to read, highlighted in red:
Yikes! Anyway, for MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am recommending the novel in verse Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson.