My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Digital Review Copy (DRC) provided by Edelweiss+ in exchange for an honest review.
Jacqueline Woodson writes poetry that grips you and doesn’t let go. This historical fiction Novel In Verse does just that, beginning in 1999 when the eponymous Prince song gives confidence to 12 year old ZJ’s group of friends on the eve of the new millennium. ZJ’s dad Zachariah “44” Johnson is a famous NFL pro football player, a hero to ZJ and his whole community, but lately can’t remember simple things, forgets the names of ZJ’s best friends, and becomes terrifyingly angry whenever his head aches. So many tackles, so many concussions, ZJ’s mom tries to help him understand how his father is changing before his eyes.
This is story set in the early days of the NFL’s reckoning with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and conveys the frightening uncertainty that surrounded the symptoms without a clear diagnosis. ZJ’s crew of friends are there for him as well, each with their own hobbies and talents, to help keep ZJ grounded in his community as his parents struggle to adapt to their changed lives now that Zachariah can no longer play ball. This is a story that combines professional sports with tween life, the moments where ZJ grows, despite his wish for things to never change, from his daddy’s “Little Man” to a new role in his family as his father’s condition deteriorates. Hand this to fans of Sports Stories, Realistic Fiction set in the not too distant past, books about friendship and being true to oneself, and readers of The Crossover and Rebound by Kwame Alexander, also about professional basketball and fathers and sons. Highly recommended for readers ages 11 and up, interest level G5 and up.