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29 february 2020

Ghost, the opening entry in a four-novel series by Jason Reynolds, is a well-told children's sport story with an engaging narrator. Castle "Ghost" Cranshaw has real problems, though they don't prove insuperable; he finds real value in sports, though sport, in Reynolds' narrative, is no panacea. Reynolds generates drama, and though he uses some commonplace contexts, he doesn't fall back on formula.

Ghost, as his nickname might indicate, is a loner. A relatively poor, African-American kid in an unspecified city, he lives with his mother (a hospital food-service worker) in a run-down housing project. He takes a lot of grief at school about his worn-out clothes, off-brand shoes, and general unkemptness; he has been known to lash back. Ghost dreams of playing basketball. But one day at the park, watching a bunch of kids practicing decidedly uncool track events, he slips into the action and beats the team's top sprinter.

Ghost lacks a father figure. His mentally-troubled, substance-addicted father is in prison for trying to kill Ghost and his mother. Ghost's new track coach quickly becomes a surrogate father, though the path isn't easy. (For one thing, Coach himself struggles with the ghost of his own absent father, whose story parallels Cranshaw senior's.) Ghost is prone to "altercations." In the central plot event, Ghost, ashamed of his clunky sneakers, shoplifts a pair of running shoes. He plans, vaguely, to tell his mom that his coach bought the shoes, and his coach that his mom bought them. Before long, Coach knows the truth. How will things go for Ghost?

And how will the big race go? With all the growing-up that has to go on, sport can seem at times an afterthought. But again, Reynolds eschews easy sport-fiction formulas. The novel is full of the practices, rivalries, and pains that characterize any sport story, but it is really not about winning or losing. It's about teamwork in a highly individual sport, and about the value of discipline for free spirits.

The language of the novel is rich and natural, switching between standard and dialect easily – and without making Ghost into either a precocious reader or a convert to the virtues of reading. Castle Cranshaw seems to be good at language without modeling his style on anything literary. Such talents exist in literature as well as in sport.

And Ghost has three sequels. The opening entry in the series was so good that I got the next three immediately – now to work them into my reading queue.

Reynolds, Jason. Ghost. New York: Atheneum [Simon & Schuster], 2016. [Track: Book 1]