Jacqueline Woodson's latest novel-in-verse for middle grades just won the Coretta Scott King Author Award for outstanding writing by an African American author. Twelve-year-old ZJ's life turns upside down when his dad, a professional football player, starts suffering headaches, memory loss and personality changes. According to lore, Zachariah 44 (for his jersey number), suffered more NFL concussions than any other player, even with a helmet on. Set in 1999-2000 when degenerative brain disease caused by multiple concussions was not acknowledged or recognized by the NFL, this novel takes a hard look at what is later identified as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E.
The cumulative effect of ZJ's dad's head injuries on the family is devastating and it provides an opening for dialogue about caring for family with serious health problems, the high cost of professional sports on professional athletes, in particular black athletes, and sports injuries in general. ZJ's buddies stick by his side and offer support but there are hard moments when many of ZJ's parents' friends and colleagues disappear after the fame and attention are diverted. Something that was discussed at length in my home was the need for protective gear at all times when playing contact sports and my personal preference for flag or touch football v. tackle. As a mom, I appreciate the way Jacqueline Woodson touches on the big issues with accuracy and grace.