Miracle’s Boys by Jacqueline Woodson.
My edition Scholastic Read 180, originally published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, New York, 2000.
MG/YA realistic fiction, 133 pages.
Lexile: 660L .
AR Level: 4.3 (worth 3.0 points) .
Ever since Mama died, Lafayette and his brothers have been struggling to come together as a family. Oldest brother Ty’ree had to give up his dream to keep the family together, middle boy Charlie is consumed with guilt that he was away when she died, and Lafayette is engulfed by grief and trauma.
This was a free book choice I made a while ago, knowing nothing about the title (I didn’t even have time to read the blurb) but simply trusting Jacqueline Woodson as a consistently excellent author. She did not disappoint.
Based on the opening lines though, what did greatly surprise me was that this book was appropriate for middle grade readers. The opening scene involves Charlie ranking various groups by their “badness” or gang affiliation. Certainly throughout the book there are moments teachers might want to be aware of in advance. A few times it comes up that Charlie held up a candy store and spent two years in juvenile detention, there is some off-screen gang activity, and Charlie and a few others are casually cruel to Lafayette. But overall I would be okay reading this with most middle school students. The worst things are all off-screen, and while Charlie’s stories about his experiences can be a bit scary, others frequently reassure the narrator or point out that Charlie’s stories are mostly bluster.
The boys are all full brothers but their dad died while Lafayette was in the womb, so losing Mama has hit him doubly hard. They are black/Puerto Rican which is an ethnicity severely underrepresented in children’s literature. There is relevance to our current health care debate in the USA – Mama was diabetic and it’s clear from the book that they are very poor and don’t have great healthcare. It’s never stated but possible that her death was due to a lack of insulin or inappropriate medical access.
Although a specific time period is not given and the emotions involved are timeless, this book is set in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Although not specifically referred to by title, Lafayette at one point watches the 1997 Jim Carrey vehicle Liar Liar on VHS (he doesn’t think much of it). Cell phones are not ubiquitous yet either, although at least one scene seems to indicate they have a cordless land line. While I would still consider it realistic fiction as of this writing, it will become historical fiction before we know it, so I’m using both tags.
I cannot speak highly enough of the way Woodson delicately navigates the emotional landscape of this family. On her page for this book, she mentions that she wanted to write a book of all boys. While there are two female characters (their deceased mother and faraway great aunt), the book focuses very intensely on the boys, and in this manner is able to explore many of the deep emotions that all three boys have surrounding their loss. Each of the boys is a different age and has a different set of experiences surrounding the family, besides simply their personal differences in temperament.
There are many books that focus on grief, but I haven’t seen many that deal this well with the grief African American/Latino adolescents face. Besides being an accurate portrayal of several kinds of grief, it’s also engaging and short enough that the target audience is likely to read it.
A minor spoiler, but another aspect of this that I loved was how Woodson included therapy in the story. It’s off screen, Lafayette has finished before we meet him, but he discusses how he went to therapy, the hoops his brother and aunt had to jump through to get him appropriate counseling and even to get to the sessions as a low-income family. Lafayette later wishes his brother Charlie could get therapy as well, but it’s not an option any more.
This is a slim book that would be great for high low readers. It’s unusual in that it could appeal to a wide range of readers, from kids a little younger than Lafayette all the way up to high school students who might identify with Charlie or aspire to be like Ty’ree.