If you haven’t heard, I’ve fallen head over heels in love with the world of middle school reading and middle grade lit! After teaching A Long Walk to Water, The Giver, and book clubs last year, I was searching for another text to add to my curriculum. On a whim, I decided to feature Jacqueline Woodson’s new novel in verse, Before The Ever After, for First Chapter Friday. Knowing Woodson, I knew the book would be good, so I previewed the first few pages and featured the book without having read the rest of it (and without owning it). The book was such a hit! Students were so intrigued and engaged, and so was I.
After school, I promptly went home and read the rest of the book. Even before I finished it, I knew this was a story that needed to be heard and a novel that I had to teach. Even though I didn’t open a copy, let alone a class set, I penciled it in my plans and created a new folder in my Google drive. The rest was history! I taught it, loved it, and now I’m shouting from the mountaintops. I LOVE TEACHING BEFORE THE EVER AFTER! And I think you would, too!
But here’s a quick synopsis before I get ahead of myself…
Before the Ever After is a middle grade novel in verse about ZJ, a 12-year-old boy who has always looked up to his dad, a professional football player. His daddy is his whole world, but lately, that world is changing before his very eyes. ZJ watches as his dad battles headaches that won’t go away, confusing memory loss, and even uncharacteristic angry outbursts. Nobody knows what’s happening inside his head, but they begin to suspect it’s from all of the concussions of his glory days as a pro football player.
As his life shatters from a happy “before” to a scary, unknown “after,” ZJ desperately clings tight to his memories of “good days” with his dad while the “bad days” become more frequent. His family’s “new normal” is full of questions, but with a strong support system by their side, they hope that there will be some kind of future for their favorite fallen football star.
The story takes place in 1999-2000, when the link between football and CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, was largely unknown but beginning to emerge. In Before the Ever After, Jacqueline Woodson explores how this degenerative brain disease affects not just professional athletes, but their sons, familities, and communities.
Before the Ever After is everything you can expect from Woodson and more, but if you’re still not sold, then here are 10 more reasons why you should teach this book:
1. It’s short and accessible, making it perfect for a whole-class novel study.
Clocking in at 161 pages of stunning verse, Before the Ever After hits the sweet spot of a whole-class novel that is accessible to all readers. With a lexile of 780, the language is very accessible. But what makes this book a gem is just how much depth there is to it. Sure, you can comprehend it at the surface level, but you can dive deep into Woodson’s rich, lyrical verse, too. It’s the best of both worlds: accessible enough that struggling readers can feel successful, but complex enough to challenge advanced readers with lots of literary analysis.
It’s also important to keep in mind that even though the language itself is accessible, the content is mature and heavy at times. After all, it’s a book that explores the impact of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and the risks of football. There’s a LOT you can do with it! Depending on your students’ needs, you can scale the rigor up or down and use the text across a wide range of levels/grades.
Another super practical tidbit: The book is short enough that you can teach it entirely in class with only a class set of books. And even if you can’t get your hands on that, you could make do with listening to it and following along with an audiobook & ebook from Libby/your public library.
2. Before the Ever After is a great introduction to novels in verse.
Speaking of Woodson’s poetry, this book is the PERFECT introduction to novels in verse. If your middle schoolers are anything like mine, they might be a bit leery toward novels in verse, or “those poetry books,” as they call them before a proper introduction. What many young readers don’t realize is just how engaging, smooth, and moving novels in verse can be.
By the end of the book, readers are HOOKED on novels in verse. In fact, I take advantage of this by launching a round of novels in verse book clubs, or literature circles after teaching Before The Ever After. For more information on how I do run these book clubs, check out the following blog posts:
- 5 Tips for Setting Up Book Clubs & Literature Circles
- 10 Tips for Facilitating Book Clubs & Literature Circles
- Coming soon to the blog: My favorite middle grade novels in verse!
3. It’s a high-interest text with something for EVERY reader.
Choosing a whole-class novel is challenging because you’re trying to accomplish the impossible task of pleasing every reader with the same book. This is precisely why I like to balance my whole-class novels with book clubs, but it’s also why I’m very picky with the class novels I do choose to teach. So believe me when I say that this book passes my very selective whole-class novel test with flying colors!
Here’s why I love teaching Before the Ever After: There’s something in this book that every reader can relate to. Whether that’s sports, family, friendship, mental health, grief, and healing, this book has it all. Heck, you’ll hook at least half your class with the “It’s about a kid with a pro football player dad” card! And you’ll hook the rest once students begin to feel for ZJ and wonder what’s happening to his dad.
4. It gives students the chance to analyze language and symbolism.
Woodson’s verse is so lyrical and stunning that it’s practically begging for deep-dish analysis. There might be fewer words on the page, but every single poem is jam-packed with meaning, so you’ll never run out of stuff to teach and discuss. The book is brimming with symbolism just beneath the lines. Analyzing language can be challenging for young readers, but teaching Before the Ever After makes it easy to scaffold literary analysis!
In fact, it’s one of those books that’s almost overwhelming because there’s too much you can do and it’s difficult to choose which parts to teach. It’s the classic paradox of a perfect book! If you’re wondering where to start, here are a few of my favorite poems to close read:
- “You Love a Thing?” (Woodson 12-13)
- “Maplewood, 2000” (Woodson 33-35)
- “Deep Water” (Woodson 41-43)
- “The Trees” (Woodson 53)
- “Back Then” (Woodson 99-100)
- “Music” (Woodson 160-161)
5. It offers a great opportunity to analyze structure & author’s choices.
What’s even more difficult than analyzing symbolism? Analyzing the structure of a text! Again, this is a complicated skill that Before the Ever After magically makes a little easier. One of the big questions to wrestle with while reading is “Why did Woodson write this novel in verse?” Students struggle with this in the beginning, but over time, they begin to see how the verse perfectly captures emotions and memories. They realize that the structure of the novel is different from many of the books they’ve read before.
Unlike a traditional narrative, the story is told in a series of vignettes. It’s a collection of memories, a scrapbook that shows a “before” and an “after.” As readers recognize this, they understand Woodson’s choice to write this novel in verse. This opens up the door for even more conversations on how the structure of the story contributes to its meaning. Again, this is a very complex skill for my 7th graders to master, but it’s like Woodson has written the book to be taught!
6. There’s so much you can pair with it: videos, nonfiction, songs, cartoons, & more!
Another reason I love teaching Before the Ever After is because it’s so easy to pair with engaging, relevant nonfiction. With this book as an anchor text, you can easily craft a rich thematic unit full of informational texts and other media.
- “Dear Basketball” by Kobe Bryant: Compare this to “You Love A Thing?”
- The Giving Tree: Read this to explore symbolism with “The Trees.”
- Interviews with Jacqueline Woodson: NPR audio Interview & CBS This Morning video Interview & this Q&A
- Nonfiction & multimedia on CTE: CTE: Why this brain disease is more common than you think (video), as well as various Newsela articles on CTE & concussions
- Nonfiction on the psychology of memory: Here’s one example about the factors that influence memory.
- Music pairings featuring some of the songs mentioned in the book: “September,” “Memory Lane,” and “I Think I Love You”
- Political cartoons about CTE & the NFL: Check out this Google Image search for some ideas.
7. Before the Ever After challenges stereotypes through the main character, ZJ.
One of the things I love the most about Before the Ever After is how it pushes back against stereotypes and toxic masculinity with its young male protagonist, ZJ. In a world that praises being “tough,” taking tackles, and going back in the game even when you’re hurt, ZJ redefines what it means to be brave. He shows readers that being brave is stepping off the field when you’re injured and taking the time to recover. It’s being vulnerable, expressing emotion, and accepting help. Bravery is standing up for what you believe in, even if that’s saying no to tackle football with your buddies.
As Woodson describes in this interview, she wanted to portray ZJ and his friends as “these young boys who actually really talk to each other, and not only talk, but actively listen to each other and support each other.” Bravo, Woodson! Thank you for giving us the characters we wish to see in the middle grade lit world!
8. The novel raises important questions about the risks of football.
What Woodson accomplishes in just 161 pages of verse is pretty incredible. She shows readers the devastating impact of a degenerative brain disease and gently raises questions about the sport: Is football too dangerous? Is the risk worth the reward? What is the price of playing professional football?
But she asks these hard-hitting questions with tenderness, love, empathy, and even respect for the game. In typical Woodson fashion, she paints a picture with her words, builds so much empathy your heart could burst, and then leaves you space to feel, think, cry, question, and everything in between.
9. The book opens up important conversations on mental health, healing, and resilience.
In addition to bringing awareness to CTE, Before the Ever After opens up other powerful conversations about mental health, trauma, healing, and resilience. As Woodson explains in this interview, she wanted to give young readers “the language and the permission to begin to have these conversations [about mental health & CTE].” While readers might not be able to relate to the trauma of CTE, they will be able to relate to family issues, mental health, and new normals, especially in light of COVID-19.
But as tragic as Before the Ever After is, it’s also full of healing, resilience, hope, and love. It’s full of healthy emotional processing, positive coping strategies, and strong support systems. Simply put, it’s the kind of realistic fiction that you want in your readers’ hands!
10. You can hit so many skills and standards with Before The Ever After.
As you can probably tell, there’s so much you can teach with this powerful story. Specifically, I like to teach the following literature standards and skills:
- Analyze the figurative meaning of words and phrases.
- Cite textual evidence to support analysis.
- Analyze how a poem’s form or structure contributes to its meaning.
- Analyze how elements of a story interact.
And because I can fit in so much nonfiction, I can hit on the following informational text standards, too:
- Determine two or more central ideas in a text.
- Provide an objective summary of a text.
- Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text.
- Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text.
Have I convinced you yet?! READ THIS BOOK! AND THEN FIND A WAY TO TEACH IT! You won’t regret it.
In all seriousness, I hope you’ve found this blog post helpful for teaching Before the Ever After. For more information about teaching whole-class novels, check out the following blog posts: