In her latest novel for middle grade readers, Ghost Boys, Jewell Parker Rhodes blends history with current events and historical characters with fictional ones to weave a tale of an African-American boy whose life is cut short by a white policeman’s bullet. We spoke with Rhodes about her personal experiences of racism in America, why Emmett Till, an African-American teenager lynched in Mississippi in 1955, plays a major role in a story set in contemporary Chicago, and how writing this novel was painful, but also cathartic for her. Ghost Boys is Indiebound’s #1 Kids Indie Next pick this spring.

What inspired you to write Ghost Boys?

Every child everywhere deserves to have a childhood. It is a betrayal of innocence and trust when adults who have a responsibility to protect and nurture children instead harm or murder them. This is tragic. Yet, as a writer I believe words have the power to shape the world. I believe today’s youth are going to make the world better. These two beliefs inspire me to write about resilience and to mirror children’s unlimited capacity for compassion, empathy, and love. As an author I bear witness, my characters bear witness, and I know my readers will bear witness to the belief that everyone’s story needs to be told and in the telling, we can cauterize grief and pain and transform it into a force for good.

Though I write about tough subjects, kids know that my stories are also infused with kindness, hope, and, ultimately, it empowers them. As the ghost boy Jerome says: “Only the living can make the world better. Live and make it better.” That is the clarion call I believe all children want to hear: “Live…. Make the world better.”

It is essential for adults not to patronize kids. They are far more sophisticated and knowledgeable about inequities in the world. More importantly, in a few short years they will be adults voting and participating in our civic discourse. Before that time, young readers need opportunities to discuss significant issues with their family members and in their school community.

This novel is for middle grade readers, yet it deals with some intense issues. Do you think middle grade readers—especially boys of African heritage—can handle such a story without being traumatized?

Children do not live in a vacuum. History and current events both demonstrate racism and racial biases. African-American families have to prepare their children at a young age for the possibility of prejudice and discrimination. From the 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation to the 2017 film Get Out, cultural stereotypes about black people abound.

Last year, I talked to fourth graders in Louisiana about my novel, Sugar. The very first question came from a black boy who asked: “Why do white people hate us so much?” My heart broke. Why should any child in 2018 feel hated because of the color of their skin?

In 1992, my son was two when the L.A. riots exploded after four police officers were acquitted of wrongdoing during the arrest of Rodney King. I still worry about my son because I know racial bias still exists. Today, beyond increasingly segregated schools, studies document that black children are seen as less innocent, more sexually knowledgeable, and physically older than their actual age. In schools, black children are far more likely to have police officers called to arrest them than be disciplined by school officials.

In my novels, I always focus on seeing, really seeing another human being. Forget labels, drop biases, and connect as people. In Towers Falling, Deja, an African-American homeless girl, is best friends with Sabeen, a Muslim Turkish American girl, and Ben, a Jewish military kid. In Ghost Boys, Jerome, an African-American Chicagoan, becomes friends with Carlos, a Hispanic boy relocated from Texas. Jerome as a ghost, and the white police officer’s daughter, Sarah, see each other, too. Through understanding and empathy, Sarah takes steps to make her family and world better.

Now forget all the labels I’ve just used. The truth is that when I write, I focus on my characters’ interior lives. With character-driven stories I hope to convey the feeling, the emotional truth that “people are people are people” and that all should be treated equitably and given respect.

What was your writing process for Ghost Boys?

Writing Ghost Boys was challenging and emotional. Emmett Till was murdered when I was a year old. As a woman and as a mother of a black son, I’ve had my own challenges with discrimination. And as a grandmother, I still live in a time when black boys and men can be murdered due to racism or racial biases. Before I could bear witness to tragedy, I had to experience my own catharsis.

I first wrote 27 pages and said, “That’s it. I’m done with the novel.” Then after several weeks, I’d dive back into [it] and write another 10 pages. Then, I’d repeat, “That’s it. I’m done!” Over a two-year period, the novel grew in increments with long breaks in between, during which I read volumes on discrimination and felt sorrow. I had to experience my own painful journey in order to experience and reaffirm transformative love for our common humanity. I felt such a special obligation because I was writing for youth. My novel makes a space for strong emotions but doesn’t slay hope and optimism, and celebrates the inherent power in each child “to be and make the change.”

Why did you feature in such a prominent role Emmett Till, who was murdered in 1955, when there are so many other recent victims, including Trayvon Martin—who was murdered in 2012—who make only a cameo appearance?

All of the ghost boys symbolize individuals and the spiritual legacy of a community of boys who died too soon. The historical context from 1955 to 2012 is what is important. It allows me to draw distinctions between the overt and conscious racism of the 1950s with the still prevalent legacy of racial biases in the current day.

Research for the novel was ongoing. Even after Ghost Boys was in copyediting, I was able to rewrite Emmett’s story to reflect Mrs. Carolyn Bryant’s recent admission that she lied about Emmett physically and verbally assaulting her. Ghost Boys bears witness to the truth of Emmett’s undoubtable innocence.

What function does Sarah serve in Ghost Boys? Why is only the daughter of the white policeman who killed Jerome able to commune with him—rather than Carlos, for example?

Because of his cultural beliefs in ancestors and Day of the Dead rituals, Carlos already has a friendship with Jerome that extends beyond life. It was exciting to me that Carlos’s Hispanic traditions mirror Jerome’s grandmother’s African diasporic belief that “Every goodbye ain’t gone.” Throughout the world, honoring the dead is a cultural theme. Over a million African slaves were in colonial Mexico and their afterlife beliefs may have influenced Day of the Dead and vice versa.

By Sarah seeing and hearing Jerome, Sarah becomes an empowered character who, with critical thinking skills and love, forgives her father and advocates for social justice. Sarah is changed by Jerome’s story and, in turn, she will help improve the world. I love the line when Jerome asks about who could see Emmett as a ghost. Emmett replies: “A guy with a funny name. Thurgood Marshall.” Why can’t Sarah then be as impactful as Thurgood Marshall?

What do you hope young readers will take away from your novel?

I hope young readers will feel inspired and know that their thoughts and feelings matter. By their presence and their actions, young readers can make (and are making) the world a better place. Whether the book is read by one child or a trillion children, young readers should know that this author and wonderful booksellers are honoring them by fully and firmly believing that their lives, thoughts, and actions matter. Children are the heroes of our time. It is a special grace to hand a child a book. Storytelling is the human discourse that unites and inspires us all.

Young readers will “live and make the world better.” They will tell their own powerful stories. And because of the example of booksellers, teachers, and parents, they will hand a book to their future children. And in another generation, future books may indeed fulfill Jerome’s admonition—“Don’t let me/(Or anyone else)/Tell this tale again/Peace out/Ghost Boy.”

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Little Brown, $16.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-316-26228-6