Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson Reviewed by Sophia King ‘24
Being the charming, talented pro football star, ZJ’s dad has always been everyone’s hero. He’s as loved by the entire neighborhood as he is by his millions of adoring fans. But recently, his dad, the famous all-star, has started changing; he has been forgetting more and started getting angry more often when he used to never yell. The doctor’s relentless tests and ever-changing diagnosis seem to revolve around his dad having one too many concussions, but no one can figure out how to help yet. None of their prescriptions or advice seems to work as ZJ’s dad embarrasses him
in front of his family and friends and begins to forget where he is.
But ZJ himself is full of just as many questions as the doctors. Will his dad get better? Is his condition permanent? Are their days of singing and making music gone forever? ZJ is determined to stay strong alongside his music and his trusted friends who have his back. And yet, ZJ is still scared even if it seems less scary with family and friends by his side.
Review (SPOILERS AHEAD!):
Jacqueline Woodson has done it yet again; in the 2021 Author Award Winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award, the author illustrates a poignant and heartbreaking narrative written exclusively in verse, where readers sympathize with the lovable ZJ who, despite feeling scared in the face of his father’s condition, consistently reminds himself to stay strong. Although I typically prefer the traditional prose, I found Woodson’s writing to be earnestly poetic and much more touching. The style and clever breaks she utilizes throughout the novel-in-verse created an emotional effect that helped to move the reader to further empathize with the preteen narrator. Her beautiful parallels among ZJ’s dad’s lively personality, jokes, and vivaciousness and the aftermath of too many concussions during his NFL career not only gives readers insight into ZJ’s perspective of recreating the image of his dad but also reflects the time period between 1999-2000 when the cost of brain injury in football was just beginning to come to light.
Although the NFL did not formally acknowledge any connection between scores of players’ crippling neurological ailments to the injuries provoked during countless games until 2016, Woodson portrays the father’s symptoms as ones that bear striking resemblance to C.T.E. (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and depicts the lack of knowledge surrounding these players’ afflictions. Since the novel-in-verse largely revolves around a theme of change, remembrance, and childhood which are portrayed through ZJ’s flashbacks and contrasted with the present time, readers also see the quiet anguish experienced by the family as the nightmarish and irreversible decline of the once-mighty and strong athlete fades into a character who trembles uncontrollably, stares vacantly, is prone to angry outbursts, and forgets basic things, most achingly the name of the son who bears his name.
Overall, Woodson’s approach to spreading awareness of the cost of playing high contact sports results in a lyrical portrayal filled with evocative language to deepen the readers’ understanding of the hopeful father-and-son tale, as well as pages haunted by the looming idea of a hero fading and his son finding solace in music and weakened memories as his “happily ever after” dissolves.
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