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Remembering and Healing with Before the Ever After

Before the Ever After

Written by Jacqueline Woodson

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books in 2020

ISBN 978-0-399-54543-6

Grades 4 – 8

Book Review

As his mother and father visit doctor after doctor and try meds after meds, ZJ aches for the time ‘before’ his father’s illness, a time filled with picnics, pick up games, and spontaneous dance parties in the living room. ZJ’s father is a pro football player who is experiencing headaches, mood swings and memory loss. Jacqueline Woodson’s latest novel in verse explores the impact of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) on tight end Zachariah ‘44’ Johnson, through the eyes of his twelve year old son, his namesake. In a series of free verse poems, ZJ expresses the hurt and confusion he and his mother experience as his father struggles with pain, anger, and disorientation. ZJ plays the guitar, and seeks to make sense of these life changes by composing songs, a pastime he and father shared. He also finds joy and consolation in time spent with three close friends. Defying stereotypes about tween boys and their ability to process emotions, the four talk openly about the challenges that ZJ’s family is facing. Woodson’s poems poignantly express the love shared by this family and the heartbreak that they experience as they seek answers and hope for a return to life as they knew it ‘before.’ Woodson leaves it to readers to infer what kind of an ‘ever after’ this will be, but offers reassurance. This is a story we need right now as we surpass half a million deaths in the pandemic. This is a story of loss and of longing, a story that reminds us that when the unthinkable happens, we can go on, sustained by friendships, by rituals, by memories, and by the constancy of love.

Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classroom

The Risks of Football. In an interview with NPR, Jacqueline Woodson is asked whether it is her intent to discourage young people from playing football. Her answer is nuanced and focuses on informing young people about the inherent risks of the sport. After reading Before the Ever After, listen to the interview with your students. What questions do they have about football and CTE? See our Classroom Bookshelf entry on Fourth down and inches: Concussions and football’s make or break moment and share this book with your students. Note that this book was published in 2014. What has changed in research and in public opinion in the ensuing years? What has not changed? Learn more about football, head injuries, and debate about the safety of the game in the collection of articles in this NYTimes Topics page

Understanding CTE. Before the Ever After takes place in 1999 as understandings about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) were beginning to emerge. Support your students to understand this condition and its effects by exploring the resources listed in Further Explorations. Support students to understand the steps they can take to minimize their own risk of concussion, like wearing helmets when bike riding and skateboarding, and participating in baseline concussion testing for student athletes if it is available in your community. 

“When You Love a Thing.” In the poem “When You Love a Thing,” ZJ’s Dad tells him: “ When you love a thing…you gotta love it with everything you got. Till you can’t even tell where that thing you love begins and where you end.” This concept is complex in Before the Ever After, since ZJ’s father’s love of the game leads to his illness. Can there be both irony and truth in this statement? Invite you students to consider this question. (If your students are ready to extend this discussion, point out the reference to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree in the poem “The Trees” and ask them to talk about how/why Jacqueline Woodson makes this connection.)  Provide an opportunity for students to reflect on whether there is any ‘thing’ in their life that they love so completely they believe they are meant to do. Students who cannot readily identify a passion can be encouraged to consider how sparks of interest and trying new things can lead to the discovery of strong affinities. 

Reading Realistic Fiction. In the poem “Real Fiction,” ZJ describes the enjoyment he gets from reading about “real people, real stuff happening to them, in real time.” Engage in a genre study of realistic fiction with your students, designing a literature circle experiences with realistic fiction novels. Ask students to articulate what they gain from reading in this genre. You may want to introduce them to Rudine Sims Bishop’s concept of Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors and/or have them read Christopher Myers’s “Young Dreamers” article in The Horn Book. 

The Soundtracks of Our Lives. Throughout the novel, ZJ references songs that are meaningful to his family. These songs hold memories, uplift, and offer comfort. Invite your students to create a playlist of the soundtracks of their lives. What songs are meaningful to them? To their families and friends? How does music carry us through our days and how does it hold the memories of our years? Extend this by encouraging your students to ask their family members and loved ones to share their own soundtracks and/or by having students each select one soundtrack to compile into a class playlist.  Note: To honor the more than 500,00 lives lost to the pandemic, NPR has created a series called Songs of Remembrance in which family and friends share stories about and a favorite song of their lost loved one.  

“The New Normal.” Throughout the Covid19 pandemic, we have heard many references to “the new normal,” accompanied by a pervasive longing to return to ‘normal.’ For many families who have suffered losses during this time period, this is a paradox. They know that a return to normal is not possible and that they will continue to need to navigate change, loss, and grief even when restrictions are lifted. Woodson’s poem “Back Then” plays on the football term ‘holding’ to share ZJ’s struggles with his changing reality: “I feel like someone’s holding us, keeping us from getting back to where we were before and keeping us from the next place too.” Explore this feeling through conversation – how do your students relate to the quote and how do they feel differently?  Invite your students to reflect on the concept of “normal,” inviting them to compose a free verse poem exploring their experiences of life before, during, and after the pandemic. Books that explore change and constancy, such as Brenden Wenzel’s A Stone Sat Still may help your students to understand that while change is a constant in our lives (both rapid change and slow change), there are elements of beauty that endure. 

How We Remember. As a result of the Covid19 pandemic, Americans and global citizens are coping with grief and loss on an overwhelming scale. You and your students may find comfort in sharing the ways that you remember lost or forever changed loved ones. ZJ memorializes his dad in songs and by revisiting photos and family traditions. Different cultures and religious traditions include many different ways of memorializing. While death and loss are difficult topics for the classroom, it can be incredibly powerful to open up space for a discussion of loss and remembering in classrooms. It’s important to remember that students will vary in their wishes and abilities to discuss losses. Collaborate with your school counselor and psychologist to be sure that you have a nuanced and varied approach to support your students. Note: We were particularly touched by President Biden’s message during a memorial for 500,000 lives lost to Covid10: “To heal, we must remember.”

Letting the World Heal Us. Throughout the novel, ZJ copes with worry and sadness in many different ways. Pose this question to your students: What helps ZJ to deal with sadness and other strong emotions? Students are likely to notice that ZJ finds comfort in his music, in nature, and in friends and family. Ask students to draw, write about, or create a photo collage that depicts the resources they draw upon for support when they are feeling sad, angry, or other negative emotions. If you have a child in your class who reveals that they are particularly sad, anxious or fearful, be sure to speak with your school counselor. You may also find these resources from the Child Mind Institute, the American Academy of Pediatrics,  National Alliance for Grieving Children: Covid19 Resources, and National Public Radio helpful. 

Loved Ones with Memory Loss. Before the Ever After can be included in a text set that focuses on memory loss. Our Classroom Bookshelf entries include two titles that depict families’ experiences with Alzheimer’s disease:  Merci Suarez Changes Gears (a chapter book) and Dad’s Camera (a picturebook). Additional titles to consider that address memory loss include: Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth, Just Like Jackie, and Hour of the Bees. 

Duet Model Reading with The Crossover. Pair a reading of Before the Ever After with Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover. Both are novels in verse and feature father-son relationships. Both address sports and health issues.  Both are award winning. Compare: character development, writing style, plot, poetic techniques, family relationships, sports and popular culture. 

Author Study: Jacqueline Woodson. In an interview with NPR about Before the Ever After, Jacqueline Woodson states: “And for me, challenge has always been, how do I tell a story for young people and tell it with love, right, and tell it with empathy and tell it in a way that’s not going to break them.” As an author of both picturebooks, and novels for children, young adults, and adults, she takes on an array of life’s challenges. Her broad range of writing and her deep skills as a writer make her an excellent candidate for an author study in the classroom. We’ve blogged about several of Jacqueline Woodson’s books on The Classroom Bookshelf: Brown Girl Dreaming, Each Kindness, Beneath a Meth Moon, 

Critical Literacy

Grades 6-8

Black Football Players, CTE, and Racism. Share the following two articles with your students, which address racial bias in dementia testing and legal settlements: NYTimes: Black Former N.F.L. Players Say Racial Bias Skews Concussion Payouts and  NYTimes: Lawmakers Ask N.F.L. About Race Norms Used in Concussion Settlement. Engage your students in a discussion of these examples of systemic racism. Connect these examples to a broader history of racism in anthropology and medical research (use Jason Reynolds’ and Ibram Kendi’s Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You as a resource). 

Further Explorations

Online Resources

Author’s Website: Jacqueline Woodson

Poetry Foundation: Jacqueline Woodson

Reading Rockets: Jacqueline Woodson Video Interview

NPR: Jacqueline Woodson Wants Kids to Know the Beauty – And the Danger of Football

CBS This Morning: Jacqueline Woodson

NYTimes Topics: Head Injuries in Football

CDC: Heads Up to Youth Sports

National Alliance for Grieving Children: Covid19 Resources


Boyce, F.C. (2017). Sputnik’s guide to life on earth. HarperCollins.

Eager, L. (2016). Hour of the bees. Candlewick. 

McClafferty, C.K. (2014). Fourth down and inches: Concussions and football’s make or break moment. Carolrhoda Books. 

Medina, M. (2018). Merci Suarez changes gears. Candlewick. 

Reynolds, J. & Kendi, I. (2020). Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and you. Little Brown. 

Stoddard, L. (2018). Just like Jackie. HarperCollins. 
Watkins, R. (2018). Dad’s camera. Ill. by L. Anelli. Candlewick.

Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.