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"Before the Ever After," | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider

A boy’s relationship with his father, who’s suffering life-altering symptoms from traumatic hits he took to his head as a pro-football star, is the focus of Jacqueline Woodson’s stunning new book in verse, “Before the Ever After.”

Though this read-it-in-one-sitting novel is for children ages 10 and up, it’s a stellar page-turner for anyone who relishes terrific writing and an engaging, albeit heartbreaking story.

The book is set in 1999, when doctors didn’t yet know what caused some footballers to experience erratic behavior, have memory loss and sometimes act out violently.

Twelve-year-old VJ and his mother see the subtle, then more obvious changes in Mr. J, “Zachariah 44” Johnson, a 223-pound man with huge hands, and a strong psyche, a star on the field and as a family man.

“Before the ever after, Daddy’s hand didn’t always tremble and his voice didn’t shake and his head didn’t hurt all the time. Before the ever after, there were picnics on Sunday afternoons in Central Park driving through he tunnel to get to the city, me and Daddy making up songs.”

Using this phrase, “Before the ever after,” Woodson compares the family’s past to their present, sparingly and brilliantly weaving her narrative, inviting readers into the boy’s world, introducing his friends, a group of guys he pals around with, and detailing the comfort VJ finds in his music, a talent he shares with his father.

Mr. J is proud of his son’s musical gift, and encourages him to pursue it, as Mr. J. embraced football, “I love everything about the game. Even the smell of the ball…Imagine loving something so much, you love the smell of it?”

“Before the Ever After” is a realistic, personal story of how CTE, Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, impacts a family, and how despite the confusion and loss the boy and his mother experience, they accept and bravely face the physical/mental anguish their adored father and husband suffers, walking through his illness with him in commitment and love.

Though tragic, this beautiful book is never maudlin, rather it leaves readers grateful that CTE is now recognized. Though, as Woodson states in her author’s note, the protection football helmets offer is still “…not enough.”

This is an important story to share with young readers.

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