73 pages 2 hours read

Jacqueline Woodson

Before the Ever After

Fiction | Novel/Book in Verse | Middle Grade | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


Jacqueline Woodson’s Before the Ever After is a middle-grade novel-in-verse published in 2020. Set at the turn of the 21st Century, the novel chronicles a professional football player’s mental decline due to the onset of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The story is told from the point of view of his pre-teen son. Together, the poems paint a picture of how a young boy adjusts to the decline of his beloved father. The novel takes place when doctors and the National Football League (NFL) denied any connection between the brutality of American football and the development of CTE in its players, which creates strife for the main characters in the novel. 

The novel earned Woodson the 2021 Coretta Scott King Author Award from the American Library Association. Woodson was also the 2018-2019 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, preceded by Walter Dean Myers, and Gene Luen Yang. Like these authors, Woodson’s works are known for tackling complex emotional issues in a way that young readers can readily understand, even as the characters grapple with mature topics.

This guide references the first edition, published in 2020 by Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Plot Summary

Woodson’s storytelling is non-linear, meaning the novel does not chronicle one event after the other. Instead, the novel consists of poems, which serve as Zachariah “ZJ” Johnson, Jr.’s memories. Many poems take the form of ZJ talking about long-ago events and recent ones, often in the same poem, jumping backward and forward in time. This contemporary/historical fiction book takes place in Maplewood, New Jersey in 1999 and 2000.

ZJ is the son of famous African American football player Zachariah “44” Johnson Sr., who plays tight end for an NFL team. ZJ only feels like he’s in his father’s shadow in front of reporters or people who don’t know him personally. At home and with his friends, he feels seen, loved, and content. His father is his best friend; the two spend a lot of time together whenever his father is not away at a game. They drive to and from school, make visits to Central Park, and hang out on the weekends and off-season writing songs together. In their more quiet moments, Zachariah Sr. tells ZJ stories about what he wanted most growing up—to play professional football. He tells Zachariah about the friends he had, the people he cared about, and the moments they shared. As his father declines, ZJ holds onto these stories tightly. ZJ even knows the story of the first song his mother and father danced to at a party and the story of his birth.

ZJ’s friends call themselves the Fantastic Four. The group is made up of ZJ and three other boys in his class: Darry, Daniel, and Ollie. Each boy has his own passion and his own way of being himself in the world. Together, they feel brave, happy, and unstoppable. The boys spend a lot of time after school and on weekends riding bikes, sharing meals, and playing the occasional touch football game.

Everything in ZJ’s world is right and perfect until his father begins staying home from football games. Zachariah Sr. starts repeating things as if it is the first time, and he lashes out when people tell him it’s not the first time he’s said it. His hands shake uncontrollably sometimes, and he has headaches that make him lay in the bed moaning and screaming for most of the day. On New Year’s Eve 1999, Zachariah Sr. yells at ZJ and his friends for playing music too loudly, which scares all of the boys. ZJ feels like the world has ended; his father never yells,. He has forgotten who ZJ’s friends are, asking “Who are these boys, anyway?” (34). ZJ and his friends know something is wrong, but they are afraid to acknowledge it.

As Zachariah Sr.’s condition worsens, ZJ’s mother takes him from doctor to doctor seeking answers. They all want to do tests, and they all say they don’t know what’s wrong. The doctors suggest medicines that only make matters worse. ZJ and his mother become more frustrated and afraid as the symptoms worsen. ZJ’s mother believes the doctors know more about what’s going on than what they say. ZJ worries that if they can’t figure out what’s going on with his father, they won’t be able to cure him and make everything right again. Zachariah Sr. has an episode in the middle of the night that requires the police to bring him home, and soon after, ZJ’s mother takes him to a highly recommended doctor in Philadelphia.

The doctor in Philadelphia is the first to confirm a likely connection between the number of concussions Zachariah Sr. has had while playing football and the symptoms he is experiencing. Friends and family continue to check in as ZJ and his mother learn to cope. There are more questions than answers, because, at the time of these events, many doctors refused to consider the implications of the game’s injuries and these disastrous symptoms. As time passes, it becomes clear that ZJ’s father won’t be getting better anytime soon.

ZJ turns to his music, his memories of his father, and his friends to cope with his emotions. While he begins to lose who his father used to be, he finds that their love for one another will continue to hold them together through music.