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“He’s not my hero, he’s my dad, which means he’s my every single thing,” Zachariah Johnson Jr.  —Before the Ever After  

Before the Ever After

by Jacqueline Woodson
AR Test, Diverse Characters

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ZJ’s dad, “Zachariah 44” Johnson, is a football star and ZJ’s entire world. He has always been there for ZJ and his mom. Zachariah 44 is a source of pride for the neighborhood and his fans. But after his most recent football concussion, ZJ’s dad has been different: Wild mood swings, forgetting ZJ’s friends’ names, even forgetting ZJ’s name. ZJ finds himself watching as the father that he loves deteriorates before his eyes. Clinging to his friends and mom, ZJ dreams about what life was like before the ever after.

Told in verse by ZJ, Before the Ever After highlights important moments that ZJ remembers about his father—the good and the bad. This is a story that pertains to head injuries in the NFL in the early 2000s and how they were dealt with. It specifically highlights the impact these injuries had on the families of these players.

In a way, ZJ is narrating a tragedy about his father’s fall from football star to a father that can’t remember his own son’s name. ZJ and his mother deal with the situation as best they can, and ZJ’s stories of the good times with his father carry a strong nostalgic tone. ZJ is elementary to middle school-aged, and the way he understands and relays information is perfect for younger readers. ZJ also plays football, but his relationship with it is complicated as ZJ tries to come to terms with the sport that his father loved so much. Although this story is about ZJ’s father, it is very much ZJ’s story as well.

Although Before the Ever After isn’t very long, Jacqueline Woodson carries us along with simple yet powerful verse that conveys the somber tone of ZJ’s particular voice. Throughout the course of the novel, ZJ learns that the things we love in life become a part of us, whether it’s a hobby or career or a person. Those things that we love unconditionally live in our memories, good and bad. By the end of the book, ZJ’s narration is mostly in the present rather than in the past, showing that he’s starting to accept his new reality. Although what happened to his father will never be okay, ZJ isn’t alone, and that’s the most important lesson of all.

Sexual Content

  • ZJ’s mom takes his dad to the doctor, who tells ZJ’s dad that he can’t drive anymore. ZJ narrates, saying “the doctor said to Daddy, / Look on the bright side. You have this / beautiful chauffeur. / Then he winked at Mama. / Look on the bright side, my daddy said / back to the doctor. / You’re a total chauvinist.”


  • “Zachariah 44” Johnson (also referred to as Dad) is a professional football player, so football-related pains and injuries are abundant. Once, Johnson describes, “His whole body . . . / is 223 pounds of pain / from toes to knees, from knees to ribs, / every single hit he took yesterday / remembered in the morning.”
  • One day, Ollie and ZJ are playing tackle in the yard when “Ollie tackled [ZJ] so hard, [his] head hit / the ground / and [his] nose bled.” Ollie felt terrible about the situation.
  • ZJ notes that “[his] dad probably holds the Football / Hall of Fame record / for the most concussions. Even with a / helmet on.”
  • This book takes place during the late nineties through the early 2000s. The topic of Y2K and what comes with the millennium comes up in conversation. ZJ talks about “this guy on the radio [who] said the world / was going to end / when we got to the new millennium. / That it was gonna explode—a whole / ‘nother big bang / but this time, instead of the earth being / created, / it was just gonna burst into smithereens / and all of us would be gone from here.”
  • ZJ’s dad’s mental state deteriorates throughout the course of the book from years of many concussions. Dad often forgets things and gets irrationally angry, and he sometimes will “slam the door so hard / the whole room shook.”
  • ZJ says that when he was a little kid, his grandma would say, “You’re about to get yourself / in deep water.” ZJ explains, “Deep water was a spanking from her.”
  • Football-related violence is sometimes described. ZJ notes that one time, his dad “got hit so hard, a / vein broke / in his left eye / and it stayed bloodred for days and / days.”
  • ZJ and his friend Ollie have a snowball fight in the park, and ZJ looks for specific gloves. He says, “I don’t know why / but those gloves seem to have a / superpower / when it comes to shaping snowballs and / firing them / at the sucker who didn’t duck fast / enough.”
  • ZJ gets tackled during a touch-football game. ZJ describes, “I’m going down, tasting snow and / dirt and spit / and something else too. / Blood.” ZJ, thinking about his dad’s injuries, quits football then and there.
  • ZJ’s dad punches out a window in the bedroom. ZJ says, “I’m half asleep when I hear the glass, / shattering once, then again as it’s / falling. / I hear my mother screaming and run to / their room, / where my daddy is standing at the / window, his arm through it, / and cold air blowing in.” The scene lasts for a couple of pages, and it’s clear that ZJ’s dad is confused about what’s happening.


Drugs and Alcohol

  • ZJ says that Ollie’s mom Bernadette comes over and drinks “sometimes, if it’s a Friday night, / one glass of wine.” Bernadette jokes, “Any more than that. . .  / and I forget my own name.”
  • After ZJ’s dad forgets who ZJ’s friends are, they ask “was your dad drunk?” and “maybe it was drugs.”
  • The doctors want to prescribe some “experimental drugs” to help ZJ’s dad cope with his migraines, memory loss, and anger.
  • ZJ describes some of the pills that his dad takes, saying, “there’s the pill that makes his feet / swell. / And the one that blurs his vision. / And the one that makes it hard for food to stay / in his belly. / And when none of those pills work, / there’s another doctor to see.”
  • ZJ remembers his dad’s earlier birthday parties, before people had stopped visiting them: “the ones who used to fill up our house, / their wineglasses clinking, / their laughter echoing through the / rooms.”


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Spiritual Content

  • ZJ’s best friend Ollie was left on the doorstep of a church as a baby. As a result, “a preacher and his wife found / and kept [Ollie].”
  • ZJ talks about the toll that his dad’s condition is taking on his mom. ZJ says, “Last night I found my mom outside / standing on the deck, looking up at the / sky. / Are you counting stars? I asked. / No, she said. I’m looking for God. / If anyone has any answers, I guess / God would.”
  • ZJ’s mom prays to herself, saying “In Jesus’s name, I pray. Amen.”

by Alli Kestler

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“He’s not my hero, he’s my dad, which means he’s my every single thing,” Zachariah Johnson Jr.  —Before the Ever After  

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