A Novel by Jacqueline Woodson

1. Bibliography

Woodson, Jacqueline. 2020. Before the Ever After. New York: Penguin Random House. ISBN 9780399545436

2. Plot Summary

Playing pro football made ZJ’s dad a hero. Daddy is “Zachariah 44,” the famous scorer, the Super Bowl winner, the darling of the press. But lately, he’s been acting strange. Daddy’s forgetting things—famous football players’ names, his own teammates’ names, even ZJ’s name—he’s experiencing horribly painful migraines that leave him bedridden, and sometimes he’s even yelling at ZJ, something he never used to do. ZJ is baffled at first, then shocked, then scared. Why can’t doctors fix Daddy, turning him from this puzzling new man back into the football-loving, music-jamming, kind, and encouraging man that he used to be? Luckily, ZJ has his family, “his boys,” and his music to keep him grounded despite his family’s devastating new reality. Set in the late ‘90s, this family drama written in verse sheds light on CTE, a degenerative brain disease affecting football players (and their families) that remains woefully understudied.

3.  Critical Analysis

Before the Ever After tells the story of one eleven-year-old Black boyas he watches a football-inflicted brain injury change his father forever. Told through Woodsen’s lyrical free verse, ZJ’s easygoing-turned-heartbreaking son-father relationship holds its readers transfixed, especially since it’s clear that ZJ, the protagonist and first-person narrator of the story, loves and admires his father and that his father loves and admires ZJ back. When asked whether his dad is his hero, ZJ replies that “Zachariah 44” is more than a hero. His dad is ZJ’s “every single thing.” The two jam out to music and bond over Tupac, Beastie Boys, and Rufus Wainwright. Daddy also becomes like a second father to Ollie, one of ZJ’s best friends. So when ZJ’s father becomes unresponsive, angry, and indecipherable, readers will feel the family’s—and especially ZJ’s—immense sadness and loss. Middle-graders probably won’t have experienced the devastation of CTE in their own home, but they will understand the connection that ZJ yearns to feel with his father and the bittersweetness of losing him over and over again.

ZJ is a believable middle-grade protagonist. His story feels authentic to 1999, from the ‘90s music he jams to (like Prince, Public Enemy, Digable Planets) and the hang-outs he enjoys as part of his group of friends (which he dubs the “Fantastic Four”) to the old pop culture references mentioned by his dad (like The Partridge Family, Minnie Riperton, and Earth, Wind & Fire). He’s also a believable Black character, although Black culture’s place in the novel is discreet, rather than overt. Skin color, for example, is only signaled in the text once when ZJ describes his “daddy’s brown hand” and on the cover art showing ZJ riding on his father’s shoulders. However, reader’s will note that ZJ’s mom believes in God and converses with Him as she tries to understand the reason for her husband’s condition. They will also note that the extended family is important to ZJ’s family dynamic. ZJ is in close contact with grandmothers, cousins, and various aunts and uncles who jump in to help his struggling family. In ZJ’s home, Christianity and the extended family carry immense value and weight.

Although not a “happily ever after” story, Jacqueline Woodson has written a lyrical novel that that takes a powerful stand on football, head trauma, and the rights of athletes. Readers won’t soon forget this one. Before the Ever After would make a great addition to any middle school collection. Highly recommended.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Coretta Scott King Book Award, 2021, Author Winner

Cybils Award, 2020, Middle Grade Fiction Nominee

Goodreads Choice Award, 2020, Middle Grade Nominee

Kirkus Best Middle Grade Books, 2020

Booklist Book Review Star, 2020

From Booklist: “Woodson again shows herself to be a masterful writer, and her meaningful exploration of concussions and head injuries in football, a subject rarely broached in middle-grade fiction, provides young athletes with necessary insights into sport’s less glamorous side. In addition to this, it is a novel that explores family, mental illness, and the healing that a tight-knit, loving community can provide.”

From Kirkus: “Using spare and lyrical language for ZJ’s present-tense narration, which moves back and forth through time, Woodson skillfully portrays the confusion, fear, and sadness when a family member suffers from brain injury and the personality changes it brings. . . . The well-rounded secondary characters complete a mosaic of a loving African American family and their community of friends. . . . A poignant and achingly beautiful narrative shedding light on the price of a violent sport.”

5. Connections

Music plays a large role in ZJ’s life and in his relationship with his father. Play September by Earth, Wind & Fire and Memory Lane by Minnie Riperton, and I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston, asking middle graders to listen to the lyrics. Then ask them why these songs might be important to ZJ. Ask middle graders to think about what songs are meaningful to them and, if appropriate, allow them to share their selections with the group.

Create a display of Jacqueline Woodson’s books. This selection might include the following:

  • Coming on Home Soon. ISBN 9780399237485
  • Visiting Day. ISBN 9780590552622
  • Brown Girl Dreaming. ISBN 9780399252518
  • Locomotion. ISBN 9780399231155
  • Show Way. ISBN 9780399237492
  • The Other Side. ISBN 9780399231162

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Book by Kadir Nelson

1. Bibliography

Nelson, Kadir. 2011. Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans. New York: Balzer + Bray. ISBN 978-0-06-173074-0

2. Plot Summary

Written in the voice of an African American senior who talks to her audience as if she’s talking to her own grandchildren, Heart and Soul tells the extensive history of the African American people. The story begins with the exportation of African laborers, slavery, abolition, the Civil War, Reconstruction, westward expansion, the Great Migration, and the Harlem boom, and goes on to detail the history of African Americans in World War II, Jim Crow, civil rights, and—most recently—the election of the first African American president. This 100-page monument to the strength of the African American people is written in twelve chapters, with detailed oil paintings accompanying the written history on every page. The book also includes an author’s note, an extensive timeline and bibliography, and a handy index in the back.

3.  Critical Analysis

Kadir Nelson takes pride in his heritage, a pride that is apparent in his striking illustrations of strong-willed African Americans—people like Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and even sharecroppers and schoolteachers who, though treated unfairly, stand up nobly and seem to look the reader in the eye. Nelson’s focus on the faces of his subjects allows readers to feel a sense of personal connection to the African Americans of history and respect their dignity, even in appalling circumstances.

Though Kadir Nelson’s story explains heavy topics like the founding fathers’ views on slavery, the animalistic treatment of slaves, and the Klu Klux Klan, the tone of the story’s narrator is matter-of-fact—never contemptuous or bitter. The reason to tell the tale is, in the words of this grandmotherly storyteller, to “know where you come from so you can move forward” and to “make the American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness a reality for all Americans.” This isn’t a book of anger, although parts of it will rightly make readers angry. It’s a book to educate, to uplift, and to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

The book wears Black culture on its sleeve, shown most strikingly through its notable use of “oral speak”— the African American senior narrates her story as if her readers are her own grandchildren gathered around her knee. When she notes that the white colonists decided to rebel against English because they didn’t want to be slaves to the king, she says (with a wry hint of irony in her voice that’s almost palpable), “Chile, what in the world could they ever know about that?” Her authentic pseudo-oral narration pays tribute to the African American oral tradition of storytelling, passing down wisdom and history from generation to generation, even when reading and writing was relegated only to the white folks.

The first illustration of Heart and Soul is a painting of scores of Americans of all colors, races, genders, and religions, linking arms around an American flag. Nelson’s point, shown through his words and illustrations, is clear: America and its citizens are best when all of us stand together.

A book that allows children to gain a more nuanced perspective of American history, Heart and Soul is a must-have history book for children in higher elementary and middle school.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Cybils Award, 2011, Nominee, Children’s Nonfiction

YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, 2012, Nominee

White Ravens Award, 2012, Winner, United States

NPR’s Book Concierge Pick, 2011, Kids

From Kirkus: In an undertaking even more ambitious than the multiple-award-winning We Are the Ship (2008), Nelson tells the story of African-Americans and their often central place in American history. . . . This intimate narrative makes the stories accessible to young readers and powerfully conveys how personal this history feels for many African-Americans.”

From Booklist: “Nelson, the creator of We Are the Ship (2008), recipient of both a Coretta Scott King Author Award and a Robert F. Siebert Medal, adds to his notable titles with this powerful view of African American history.”

5. Connections

Create a display of nonfiction African American history books for children and young adults, such as the following selections:

  • Crowe, Chris. Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case. ISBN 9780451478726
  • Beals, Melba Pattillo. Warriors Don’t Cry. ISBN 9780671899004
  • Bridges, Ruby. This Is Your Time. ISBN 9780593378557
  • Lewis, John, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. March: Book Three. ISBN 9781603094023

Create a display of Heart and Soul and other books written and/or illustrated by Kadir Nelson, such as the following selections:

  • We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. ISBN 9780786808328
  • Nelson Mandela. ISBN 9780061783746
  • He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. ISBN 9780803728509
  • Levine, Ellen. Henry’s Freedom Box. ISBN 9780439777339
  • Alexander, Kwame. The Undefeated. ISBN 9781328780966
  • Napoli, Donna Jo. Mama Miti. ISBN 9781416935056

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

Scott O’Dell Award Winning Book


Williams-Garcia, Rita. One Crazy Summer. New York: Amistad, 2010. ISBN 9780060760885


Delphine knows that her mother is nothing but crazy. So when her Pa decides it’s time to fly Delphine and her two younger sisters to California to meet the mom that abandoned them seven years ago, Delphine isn’t all that excited. At least Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern will be able to go to Disneyland. But when the girls touch down in Oakland, they learn that their summer will be no amusement park. Cecile, their mother, is about as motherly as a cactus and she definitely did not ask to have her three girls shipped over. While Cecile busily prints off posters and poems for the radical Black Panthers in her kitchen, she sends her daughters off to a Black Panthers-sponsored summer camp each morning to get free breakfast and to get out of her hair. In the crazy summer of 1968, the girls learn more about Black power, revolution, and—slowly but surely—more about their outwardly prickly mother.


In this short but powerful novel, eleven-year-old Delphine take center stage. Delphine, the narrator of One Crazy Summer, has a voice that rivets readers from the very beginning. She muses that she’s a “plain” kind of person, steady and straightforward, but Delphine is anything but plain. Her sisterly devotion makes her both extraordinary and lovable. When Cecile only gets Chinese takeout every night, leaving Fern with nasty stomachaches, Delphine determines to shop for ingredients and cook dinner herself. When Cecile takes Delphine’s money, leaving the children without the California trip they’d hoped for, Delphine makes their own vacation, taking her sisters to explore San Francisco through her own eleven-year-old ingenuity. When summer camp classmates tease seven-year-old Fern for carrying around a doll, Delphine is quick to defend her sister. Readers can’t help but root for this no-nonsense main character.

The setting of the story is vivid and alive, firmly entrenched in Oakland, California during the summer of 1968. Delphine begins the story with a nod to Muhammad Ali as the plane’s turbulence is compared to a “Cassius Clay-left-and-a-right-jab.” The book is also peppered with other historical references: Delphine’s sisters talk about then-popular TV shows like Captain Kangaroo and Mighty Mouse, singers like The Monkeesand Brenda and the Tabulations, and the Vietnam War. Most integral to the novel is the Black Panthers, a radical group that recruits the girls’ mother for help making prints and poetry for their cause. While Cecile is printing and writing, she sends her daughters off to a Black Panthers-sponsored summer camp for kids where they’re taught about words like “revolution” and “Black power” and participate in a rally to remember the murdered Black Panther, Bobby Hutton.

Thanks to William-Garcia’s talent, the revolution and its members are written with incredible nuance. Sister Mukumbu, a Black Panther summer camp teacher, is compassionate and kind, while another Black Panther, “Crazy Kelvin,” is—well—crazy.. Delphine notices both the foreboding rifle-bearing leader, Huey Newton, and the hospitable, kind summer camp workers working together with locals, both Black and white. While Cecile never turns into the mom the girls have hoped she would be and Delphine never receives the motherly praise she craves, this bittersweet mother-daughter relationship is offset by Delphine’s loving and unbreakable sisterly bond with Vonetta and Fern. A memorable main character, a vivid setting, and a nuanced perspective of a radical historical group make this book a standout. Libraries need this book on their shelves.


Winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award, 2011

John Newbery Medal Honor Book, 2011

National Book Award Finalist, 2010

Winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, 2011

From Kirkus: “The depiction of the time is well done, and while the girls are caught up in the difficulties of adults, their resilience is celebrated and energetically told with writing that snaps off the page.”

From Booklist: “Regimented, responsible, strong-willed Delphine narrates in an unforgettable voice, but each of the sisters emerges as a distinct, memorable character, whose hard-won, tenuous connections with their mother build to an aching, triumphant conclusion. Set during a pivotal moment in African American history, this vibrant novel shows the subtle ways that political movements affect personal lives; but just as memorable is the finely drawn, universal story of children reclaiming a reluctant parent’s love.”


  • Create a small book display with middle-grade and young adult novels about the Black Panthers. Along with One Crazy Summer, include books such as the following:
    • Magoon, Kekla. The Rock and the River. ISBN 9781416975823
    • Spotswood, Jessica (editor). A Tyranny of Petticoats. ISBN 9780763678487
    • Shih, Bryan, and Yohuru Williams (editors). The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution. ISBN 9781568585567
  • In One Crazy Summer, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern recite poetry in front of a crowd. Host your own poetry recitation/slam night and invite middle-graders and young adults to recite poetry they’ve written or that they enjoy.
  • Read a short bio about Rita Williams-Garcia, the author of One Crazy Summer. Then set out a display of other middle-grade and young adult books by Williams-Garcia.
    • Williams-Garcia, Rita. P.S. Be Eleven. ISBN 9780061938627
    • Zoboi, Ibi (editor). Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America.ISBN 9780062698742
    • Williams-Garcia, Rita. Like Sisters on the Homefront. ISBN 9780140385618
  • Put out a display of all the 2011 Newbery Award finalists including One Crazy Summer. Then allow middle-graders to vote on their favorite title and hold an awards ceremony for the favorite pick.
    • Vanderpool, Clare. Moon Over Manifest. ISBN 9780385907507
    • Holm, Jennifer L. Turtle in Paradise. ISBN 9780375836886
    • Preus, Margi. Heart of a Samurai. ISBN 9780810989818
    • Sidman, Joyce, and Rick Allen (illustrator). Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night. ISBN 9780547152288

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.