“‘So then, who trained you? Somebody had to train you to be so fast.’
“‘Nobody. I just know how to run.'”
Castle Crenshaw, or “Ghost,” as he prefers to call himself, has always known how to run — ever since the night he and his mother had to run for their lives, while his drunk father shot at them. But Ghost has never been particularly interested in developing his talent. Not until the day that a track coach spots Ghost testing his speed against one of the track team’s members, and approaches him for a talk.
In “Ghost,” a National Book Award finalist, Jason Reynolds tells a difficult and sometimes painful story, but he does it in a way that’s appropriate for his middle-school audience. Ghost is a troubled boy — it would be hard not to be, with his father in jail for attacking him. He’s barely making it through school when Coach offers to let him be on the track team. And at first he’s not interested in the offer.
But when he reluctantly decides to accept it, in the hopes that running might improve his basketball skills, Ghost’s life starts to change. Now he has a reason to try to control his temper and avoid fights, to keep from getting thrown off the team. And gradually, he realizes that he also has a new father figure and new friends who care about him.
The story is told in the first person by Ghost himself, giving the reader a chance to understand and identify with him. Looking at his life through his own eyes, we can see why he makes the bad choices he does — like fighting and stealing — even as we root for him to pull himself together and do better. And we’re glad that Ghost has wise adults whom he respects in his life — his coach, his mother, his principal. Through them he learns both about justice and mercy, as they hold him accountable for his mistakes, but also show him the grace he needs to try again and do better.
Despite the tough subject matter — we get a closeup look at Ghost’s poverty as well as the violence in his background — the story is suitable for middle-schoolers, and very well-written. There’s no profanity or sexuality to be concerned about. And the violence is not dwelt on for lengthy amounts of time. It’s heartbreaking, and it continues to shape Ghost’s life in many ways, but it’s not presented in explicit or frightening detail.
For middle-schoolers who are interested in sports — and even for middle-schoolers who aren’t — “Ghost,” the first in a series by Reynolds, is a strong and satisfying read. While it paints a bleak picture of a young boy’s difficult life, it also offers inspiration and hope.
Image copyright Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.