Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson’s poignant verse novel explores the cost of professional athletics to some families.

Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson. Penguin Random House (Nancy Paulsen Books), 2020, 161 pages.

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 8-10

Recommended for: ages 10-15

Zachariah Johnson Jr. loves football. Not just because his daddy loves it. His daddy plays it, big time: two SuperBowl rings, one of the best tight ends on the field—maybe in history. ZJ has loving parents, a big house with an indoor basketball court, four reliable friends in Darry, Ollie, and Daniel, and a front-row seat to the world’s greatest game every fall. And the Day after the game/ after Daddy gets out of bed slow/ his whole body, he says, is 223 pounds of pain/ from toes to knees/ from knees to ribs/ every single hit he took yesterday/ remembered in the morning.

The “Ever After” begins with fierce headaches, disorientation, moodiness so severe Daddy takes a leave of absence from the game. What’s wrong? Nobody seems to know at first, even though ZJ Sr. has taken many hit to the head during his career. Still, he always got over it, always returned to the same easygoing hero dad. Until he starts screaming with pain and can’t remember ZJ’s name.

Any game with the drama, intensity, and outright violence of football comes with high stakes, and this verse novel gets inside the family that has to pay. An Author Note about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) reminds us of the cost paid by too many athletes, but this is the story of one: one dad, one son, one too many hits that may not be redeemable. Poignant, sometimes hopeful, mostly sad, the story reminds us that fame, glory, and love of the game are not ultimate values.

Overall Rating: 4 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 3.5
  • Artistic/literary value: 4.5

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Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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