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!





Update (6/22/2021): The section of the post at the beginning has now been moved to the end. Here it is:

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 reorganizationBehold!


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.

Comments

  1. I hadn't heard of this novel yet - it sounds very moving and powerful. I also loved Brown Girl Dreaming, as well as Another Brooklyn, an adult novel - she is such a wonderful writer!

    My son had multiple concussions (soccer, then an assault), and their effects are very serious. Luckily, he recovered fully, but it took a while.

    Thanks for the great review!

    Sue

    Book By Book

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    1. I need to read more books by Woodson, as she is incredible! That's awful that your son had a concussion from an assault, but I'm glad he's recovered! Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. Thanks for mentioning my interview with Carol at Literary Rambles. This sounds like a great story. I think that more kids than we realize, including my daughter, have to cope with parents who have health conditions that are disabling. This sounds like a fantastic story about coping with this in middle school. Thanks for featuring it this week.

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    1. I completely agree—a lot of kids go through things like this, and this book handles the topic really well! Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  3. This is a heart-breaking book, but I think it sheds light on an important subject.

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    1. It really does! I really appreciate you recommending it, and thanks so much for stopping by!

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  4. I really want to read this, & now am thinking of the Chiefs young quarterback, sidelined yesterday because of a concussion. He & others have a long road ahead, sad to write. I certainly will not ignore this story!

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    1. I saw that yesterday, and after reading this book, I don't think I'll ever hear news like that in the same way again. Thanks so much for stopping by, and I hope you enjoy the book!

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  5. What a lovely bookcase reorganization! Now can you come do mine? I had most of my to-be-read books all lined up neatly on 2-3 shelves in our living room before my husband and sons took a huge pile of them to the boys' section of our house. Then my two girls now have some of my to-be-read titles in their rooms. So I'm just going to have to keep a spreadsheet so that I know who all has taken which books to their rooms. Oh my, Before the Ever After was soooo good! I mean, depressing as all get-out, but so beautifully written and IMPORTANT. Writing it in verse just pulls out all the feels and it was important to see that perspective -- from the child. How awful to watch your parent disappear into a ball of rage and confusion! This really made me want to watch Concussion, again. It's been so long. Thanks for sharing and I hope you have a fantastic reading week!

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    1. I definitely get never knowing where your books have disappeared to—I reorganized because I had them in so many different rooms that I had completely forgotten I owned some of them! Thanks so much for recommending this book, as it was such a powerful story! Thanks for stopping by!

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  6. I absolutely LOVE your review!! It's so thoughtful and well put. You make me want to get my hands on Before the Ever After RIGHT NOW!!! Oh my goodness. It sounds so heartbreaking of the story. I knew about all of the issues with the NFL, but for some reason I never saw them all put together. It's incredibly sad that it's such a profitable business at the expense of their players' health--not to mention the underlying racist and social issues they refuse to address. I'm really glad that the author was able to touch on some of those issues in a meaningful way. I also love that it destigmatizes caring male friendships. That's so important!

    Also, I'm incredibly jealous of your bookshelf! It looks so good and even has stands to prop up books?!?! I just have a shelf at the top of my closet. I totally relate to having tons of books you own that you still need to get around to reading! Thanks for the awesome post!

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    1. Thank you so much! Writing out all of the issues with the NFL in one spot definitely made me realize just how many there are. Thanks about my bookcase—I can assure you, the previous setup was not something to be jealous of! Thanks for stopping by!

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  7. This sounds like a heart-wrenching book. I think my favorite by Woodson is Hush, about a family who are living in the witness-protection-program. I also really enjoyed Feathers. She writes so beautifully with such economy.
    Thanks for bringing this to our attention.
    Great job on your bookshelf organization!

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    1. I'll keep Hush and Feathers in mind, because I really need to read more books by Woodson! Her really is incredibly concise yet incredibly powerful. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  8. Great looking bookcase! I'm a big Jacqeuline Woodson fan but have not read this one. Your inspiring review has nudged this one to the top of my TBR list. Thanks for featuring on Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.

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    1. Awesome! I really hope you enjoy the book, and thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  9. Wow! I am really impressed with your thoughtful review of Woodson's book. Like others, I wasn't aware she had a new novel in verse. This is one powerful book and all parents should read it before they think about letting their kids play football. I've been familiar with CTE for some time. My neurologist says that parents aren't aware of the significant head injuries associated with soccer and volleyball. There is so much money made in sports, and it's time for people to really understand what happens with repeated concussions and brain injuries. This is serious business, as you can see how devastating it is ZJ watching his father deteriorate. I do love how father and son connect through music. I never could get into football -- it always seemed so violent. Love your organized bookcase. Thanks for sharing "Before the Ever After." I love Woodson's free verse@

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    1. Thank you! It really is awful how sports just profit off of these awful health issues—something needs to be done, but I have no idea if anything will be done. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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  10. I loved this book!
    The book shelves look great! I have most of mine in boxes in storage since we moved last spring and have been doing renovations on the house. Someday....

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    1. Thanks for nudging me to get this one reviewed—I'm glad you liked it! I hope you get a chance to unpack your books soon! Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  11. Thanks for sharing. Not sure I'm able to take the heartbreak right now, but I'm putting this on my list for future reading.

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    1. I definitely get that! I hope you get a chance to try this book in the future, and thanks so much for stopping by!

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  12. I really loved this novel as well. I don't always think verse is the right choice for novels in verse, and I certainly don't think it is always well done, but it is the perfect choice for this book, and, of course, Woodson does it so well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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    1. I completely agree! (I don't know that I've encountered any verse novels that should have been in prose yet, but I'm sure I'll come across one at some point.) Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  13. love those pics of your bookshelf..i imagine if i did try to arrange my bookshelves that way, there will be lots more red (lol)
    and thanks for introducing me to today's book.. not sure how I missed seeing this.. i love Woodson

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  14. It is fantastic, but yes, hard topic. I like how you also commented on what is not so great about the NFL... But Jackie Woodson's ability to write... just amazing!
    Your bookshelves look fantastic and I'm very jealous. But the books I have that I need to read won't even fit into your shelves, lol. I've been collecting for way too long!

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  15. I've had this book on my list, but you made me want to read it even more. I get the feeling of feeling uneasy while watching football; my local PTA was selling raffle tickets at high school football games and I felt very uncomfortable helping -- what are we selling these boys? And cheer is such a powerful sport for kids, and then for adults we turn it into a pin-up event.

    Anyway, thanks for your powerful review.

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  16. Great presentation, thanks! I haven't read this one, but I loved Brown Girl Dreaming

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