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“You can’t run away from who you are, but what you can do is run toward who you want to be,” Coach Brody. —Ghost
Defenders Track Team #1
by Jason Reynolds
AR Test, Diverse Characters, Must Read
Ghost (or Castle Cranshaw, as he would rather not be known) knows how to run all too well, and since the night his father tried to shoot him and his mother, running is all he can do to handle his wild emotions. When he shows up at a running practice, Coach Brody sees Ghost’s natural talent and insists he joins the team with one condition: that Ghost keep his head straight. For Ghost, who has a knack for running into trouble, this might be the most difficult task of all.
Ghost speaks to audiences that are otherwise underrepresented in middle grade literature, as Ghost and his friends are a diverse bunch. Ghost himself lives in a poverty-stricken part of the city. The novel tackles weighty themes like absent/abusive parents, race, and substance abuse; it contextualizes them through the lens of a thirteen-year-old who is learning to come to grips with his rage and fear. Ghost’s story in particular examines the effect of his father’s drinking and imprisonment on Ghost’s emotional state. Characters like Coach Brody and the other runners help him comprehend his situation, and their story is one about forging a new family through track.
As a character, Ghost can be arrogant. He delivers snap judgments of others. At times, he makes questionable decisions, including a major plot point where he shoplifts shoes because he cannot afford them. Despite these traits, he’s a sympathetic character who embodies what it’s like to be a kid dealing with a difficult home life, and emotions like humiliation, rage, and fear. By the end, Ghost realizes he “was the boy with the altercations and the big file. The one who yelled at teachers and punched stupid guys in the face for talking smack. The one who felt…different. And mad. And sad. The one with all the scream inside.” By the end, Ghost learns how to manage his emotions in a healthier way, as running track gives him a productive outlet.
Overall, Ghost is an entertaining read, and Reynolds does a good job delivering realistic characters that display both good and bad qualities. The plot is smart, straightforward, and doesn’t fall into predictable stereotypes. The biggest strength of the book is its ability to relate to students who otherwise don’t have a voice in middle school literature.
Although Ghost will resonate with those who love sports, any reader who has felt lost will relate to Ghost. The story shows how much of an impact one person or team can make in a kid’s life. Ghost is a must-read because it presents a growth in emotional maturity and shows that anything is possible with a support system and self-discipline.
- Ghost briefly mentions that Damon started a rumor at school. Damon “told everybody that I kissed a girl named Janine, who was the only pretty girl who liked me, but I didn’t.”
- Some of the other runners tease Patty about having a crush on Curron, another runner. She quickly dispels that idea when she says, “Ain’t nobody got a crush on Curron!”
- In a drunken rage, Ghost’s father tries to shoot Ghost and his mother. As they run away, Ghost “saw him, my dad, staggering from the bedroom, his lips bloody, a pistol in his hand… As soon as she swung the door open, my dad fired a shot… I didn’t look to see what he hit, mainly because I was scared it was gonna be me. Or Ma. The sound was big, and sharp enough to make me feel like my brain was gonna pop in my head, enough to make my heart hiccup.”
- Ghost makes an offhand comment when he thinks about his mom meeting Coach Brady. Ghost says, “I’ve seen those weird shows where psychos pose like coaches and stuff and get you caught up and the next thing you know my mother’s in jail too for handling this guy.”
- Another student bullies Ghost and strikes him with a chicken drumstick. The bully says a series of insults, and then the bully “threw the chicken wing at me. It hit me in the chest… I brushed the over-fried wing off my lap, opened my milk carton, took a swig, and then, with all my might, beamed the container at Brandon’s head…before he could even make a move, I had picked up my plastic tray and whacked him over the head.”
- Ghost watches a fight break out between a group of men on the basketball court. One man, nicknamed Sicko, pushes someone. Ghost says, “A fight. As usual. Stupid Sicko pushed the wrong guy… And then Pop got into it. And then Big James. Then Big James’s girl. And then some other girl.”
- Coach Brody details his father’s abuse. Coach Brody says that his father “punched me in the mouth when I was fifteen because I asked him to change the channel on the TV.”
Drugs and Alcohol
- Ghost’s father is an alcoholic, which Ghost talks openly about throughout the novel. Ghost says, “It was three years ago when my dad lost it. When the alcohol made him meaner than he’d ever been.”
- Ghost observes the drug addicts hanging around the basketball courts. He says, “And junkies. They’d just be zombied out, roaming around the outside of the court… Goose was the dope man… Super flashy, but an all-around nice guy. Well, except for selling drugs.”
- Coach Brody talks about his own father’s addiction and overdose. Coach says that his father “was an addict… Three weeks later, he…he stole my medal for a twenty-dollar high. He overdosed, right there on those steps.”
- Slang and otherwise grammatically incorrect sentences are used in dialogue to simulate authentic speech. For instance, Ghost says, “running isn’t anything I ever had to practice. It’s just something I knew how to do.”
- Ghost frequently insults people’s appearances. For instance, upon seeing Coach Brody, Ghost says that Coach looks like a “turtle with a chipped tooth.” Later he calls Coach “this bowling-ball-head coach.”
- When describing people, Ghost will sometimes refer to their race. For example, “milk-face running boy” and “fancy, white-black boy.”
- Ghost compares a bully to Jack from Lord of the Flies, calling him a “power-hungry dummy.”
- Ghost and the other kids frequently use words like dang, stupid, weird, crazy person, and jerk.
- Ghost references God once, saying, “His skin was white. Like, the color white. And his hair was light brown. But his face looked like a black person’s. Like God forgot to put the brown in him.”
by Allison Kestler