A National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature. Nominated as one of America’s best-loved novels by PBS’s The Great American Read.
Ghost wants to be the fastest sprinter on his elite middle school track team, but his past is slowing him down in this first electrifying novel of a brand-new series from Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award–winning author Jason Reynolds.
Ghost. Lu. Patina. Sunny. Four kids from wildly different backgrounds with personalities that are explosive when they clash. But they are also four kids chosen for an elite middle school track team—a team that could qualify them for the Junior Olympics if they can get their acts together. They all have a lot to lose, but they also have a lot to prove, not only to each other, but to themselves.
Running. That’s all Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But Ghost has been running for the wrong reasons—it all started with running away from his father, who, when Ghost was a very little boy, chased him and his mother through their apartment, then down the street, with a loaded gun, aiming to kill. Since then, Ghost has been the one causing problems—and running away from them—until he meets Coach, an ex-Olympic Medalist who sees something in Ghost: crazy natural talent. If Ghost can stay on track, literally and figuratively, he could be the best sprinter in the city. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed, or will his past finally catch up to him?
Ghost 1 WORLD RECORDS CHECK THIS OUT. This dude named Andrew Dahl holds the world record for blowing up the most balloons . . . with his nose. Yeah. That’s true. Not sure how he found out that was some kinda special talent, and I can’t even imagine how much snot be in those balloons, but hey, it’s a thing and Andrew’s the best at it. There’s also this lady named Charlotte Lee who holds the record for owning the most rubber ducks. No lie. Here’s what’s weird about that: Why would you even want one rubber duck, let alone 5,631? I mean, come on. And me, well, I probably hold the world record for knowing about the most world records. That, and for eating the most sunflower seeds.
“Let me guess, sunflower seeds,” Mr. Charles practically shouts from behind the counter of what he calls his “country store,” even though we live in a city. Mr. Charles, who, by the way, looks just like James Brown if James Brown were white, has been ringing me up for sunflower seeds five days a week for about, let me think . . . since the fourth grade, which is when Ma took the hospital job. So for about three years now. He’s also hard of hearing, which when my mom used to say this, I always thought she was saying “harder hearing,” which made no sense at all to me. I don’t know why she just didn’t say “almost deaf.” Maybe because “hard of hearing” is more like hospital talk, which was probably rubbing off on her. But, yeah, Mr. Charles can barely hear a thing, which is why he’s always yelling at everybody and everybody’s always yelling at him. His store is a straight-up scream fest, not to mention the extra sound effects from the loud TV he keeps behind the counter—cowboy movies on repeat. Mr. Charles is also the guy who gave me this book, Guinness World Records, which is where I found out about Andrew Dahl and Charlotte Lee. He tells me I can set a record one day. A real record. Be one of the world’s greatest somethings. Maybe. But I know one thing, Mr. Charles has to hold the record for saying, Let me guess, sunflower seeds, because he says that every single time I come in, which means I probably also already hold the record for responding, loudly, the exact same way.
“Lemme guess, one dollar.” That’s my comeback. Said it a gazillion times. Then I slap a buck in the palm of his wrinkly hand, and he puts the bag of seeds in mine.
After that, I continue on my slow-motion journey, pausing again only when I get to the bus stop. But this bus stop ain’t just any bus stop. It’s the one that’s directly across the street from the gym. I just sit there with the other people waiting for the bus, except I’m never actually waiting for it. The bus gets you home fast, and I don’t want that. I just go there to look at the people working out. See, the gym across the street has this big window—like the whole wall is a window—and they have those machines that make you feel like you walking up steps and so everybody just be facing the bus stop, looking all crazy like they’re about to pass out. And trust me, there ain’t nothing funnier than that. So I check that out for a little while like it’s some kind of movie: The About to Pass Out Show, starring stair-stepper person one through ten. I know this all probably sounds kinda weird, maybe even creepy, but it’s something to do when you’re bored. Best part about sitting there is tearing into my sunflower seeds like they’re theater popcorn.
About the sunflower seeds. I used to just put a whole bunch of them in my mouth at the same time, suck all the salt off, then spit them all out machine-gun-style. I could’ve probably set a world record in that, too. But now, I’ve matured. Now I take my time, moving them around, positioning them for the perfect bite to pop open the shell, then carefully separating the seed from it with my tongue, then—and this is the hard part—keeping the little seed safe in the space between my teeth and tongue, I spit the shells out. And finally, after all that, I chew the seed up. I’m like a master at it, even though, honestly, sunflower seeds don’t taste like nothing. I’m not even sure they’re really worth all the hassle. But I like the process anyway.
My dad used to eat sunflower seeds too. That’s where I get it from. But he used to chew the whole thing up. The shells, the seeds, everything. Just devour them like some kind of beast. When I was really young, I used to ask him if a sunflower was going to grow inside of him since he ate the seeds so much. He was always watching some kind of game, like football or basketball, and he’d turn to me just for a second, just long enough to not miss a play, and say, “Sunflowers are all up in me, kid.” Then he’d shake up the seeds in his palm like dice, before throwing another bunch in his grill to chomp down on.
But let me tell you, my dad was lying. Wasn’t no sunflowers growing in him. Couldn’t have been. I don’t know a whole lot about sunflowers, but I know they’re pretty and girls like them, and I know the word sunflower is made up of two good words, and that man ain’t got two good words in him, or anything that any girl would like, because girls don’t like men who try to shoot them and their son. And that’s the kind of man he was.
It was three years ago when my dad lost it. When the liquor made him meaner than he’d ever been. Every other night he would become a different person, like he’d morph into someone crazy, but this one night my mother decided to finally fight back. This one night everything went worse. I had my head sandwiched between the mattress and my pillow, something I got used to doing whenever they were going at it, when my mom crashed into my bedroom.
“We gotta go,” she said, yanking the covers off the bed. And when I didn’t move fast enough, she yelled, “Come on!”
Next thing I knew, she was dragging me down the hallway, my feet tripping over themselves. And that’s when I looked back and saw him, my dad, staggering from the bedroom, his lips bloody, a pistol in his hand.
“Don’t make me do this, Terri!” he angry-begged, but me and my mom kept rolling. The sound of the gun cocking. The sound of the door unlocking. As soon as she swung the door open, my dad fired a shot. He was shooting at us! My dad! My dad was actually shooting . . . at . . . US! His wife and his boy! I didn’t look to see what he hit, mainly because I was scared it was gonna be me. Or Ma. The sound was big, and sharp enough to make me feel like my brain was gonna pop in my head, enough to make my heart hiccup. But the craziest thing was, I felt like the shot—loudest sound I ever heard—made my legs move even faster. I don’t know if that’s possible, but that’s definitely what it seemed like.
My mom and I kept running, down the staircase into the street, breaking into the darkness with death chasing behind us. We ran and ran and ran, until finally we came up on Mr. Charles’s store, which, luckily for us, stays open 24/7. Mr. Charles took one look at me and my mom, out of breath, crying, barefoot in our pajamas, and hid us in his storage room while he called the cops. We stayed there all night.
I haven’t seen my dad since. Ma said the cops said that when they got to the house, he was sitting outside on the steps, shirtless, with the pistol beside him, guzzling beer, eating sunflower seeds, waiting. Like he wanted to get caught. Like it was no big deal. They gave him ten years in prison, and to be honest, I don’t know if I’m happy about that or not. Sometimes, I wish he would’ve gotten forever in jail. Other times, I wish he was home on the couch, watching the game, shaking seeds in his hand. Either way, one thing is for sure: that was the night I learned how to run. So when I was done sitting at the bus stop in front of the gym, and came across all those kids on the track at the park, practicing, I had to go see what was going on, because running ain’t nothing I ever had to practice. It’s just something I knew how to do.
Castle Cranshaw (nicknamed Ghost) learned how fast he could run the night his father was arrested. Running is never something he plans to do, just like he never plans to get into altercations at school. Running just happens. Then, one day, Ghost comes across a practice in the park and decides to race one of the sprinters, a decision that leads him to join Coach Brody’s elite track team: the Defenders. Coach Brody takes a chance on Ghost and gives him a future to run toward, but only if Ghost can learn to let go of the things he’s been running from.
1. The cover of Ghost includes this question: Running for his life, or from it? Explain the role that running plays in Ghost’s life. Why does he start running? How does his reason for running change?
2. What memory is triggered about Ghost’s dad from the sunflower seeds? How does this flashback help develop Ghost’s character? What other things bring back memories of his father? Are any of his memories positive?
3. Initially, what sport is Ghost interested in playing? Why isn’t he interested in track? What do you think makes him decide to race Lu?
4. Consider the connotations of the word defender. What does it mean to be a defender? Many of the characters in the novel play the role of defenders. Choose a character and explore the ways that they embody the idea of being a defender. Why is this an appropriate name for Coach Brody’s track team?
5. How did Castle get his nickname? Why do you think he likes the name Ghost better than his given name? Which name do you think suits him best: Ghost or Castle? If you gave yourself a nickname, what would it be? Have others given you a nickname? If so, does it properly reflect who you are?
6. How does Coach Brody convince Ghost to join the Defenders? How does he convince Ghost’s mom? How hard is it to balance athletics and academics?
7. Ghost has to deal with bullying at school. Why do you think Brad Simmons picks on Ghost? How does Ghost respond? Instead of fighting, how could Ghost have retaliated?
8. What do you think Ghost means when he says, “I got a lot of scream inside”?
9. What do you think Ghost means when he tells Coach, “I guess the only other person I’m really scared of, maybe . . . is me”? How does Coach respond? Do you think Ghost is hard on himself?
10. Closely read the last few pages of Chapter 5 and the beginning of Chapter 6, making sure to pay attention to the author’s use of figurative language. How does Ghost’s flashback help develop his character and internal conflict?
11. Think about the consequences Ghost faces as a result of his decision to steal a pair of running shoes. Do you think that the way that Coach punishes him is fair? What would the consequences have been if Ghost had been stopped by the police instead? What would the consequences have been if his mother had discovered the theft? What would have happened if Ghost had never been caught? Why might it have been better for him to get caught?
12. In addition to training the Defenders to be competitive runners, Coach also teaches them to work together as a team, helping them learn to be responsible and empathetic. What tactics does he use to teach these life lessons?
13. Consider the way that the author contrasts Glass Manor with Sunny’s neighborhood in Chapter 7. How does this contrast help you understand Ghost?
14. Chapter 8 ends with Ghost saying, “And it felt good to feel like one of the teammates. Like I was there—really, really there—as me, but without as much scream inside.” Why are teams important? Have you ever been a part of a team? If so, how did your experience compare to Ghost’s experience?
15. What leads to Ghost’s decision to steal a pair of running shoes? Why does he feel like stealing is his only option? What are the short- and long-term consequences of his decision? What would you have done if you were in his position? What could Ghost have done instead? What lesson does he learn as a result?
16. At the newbie dinner, what secrets do Patty, Lu, Sunny, and Ghost reveal about themselves? How does this dinner impact their relationships with one another? Why is trust so important in relationships? How can you build trust with others?
17. Gradually, Coach reveals things about his own past to Ghost. What does Ghost find out about Coach’s childhood and relationship with his father? How do these revelations develop Ghost and Coach’s bond?
18. Ghost ends with a cliffhanger. What do you think the outcome of the race will be? This is the first book in the Track series: What conflicts do you think Ghost is going to face in the next book?
1. Throughout the novel, Ghost has a number of adults who act as advocates for him: Mr. Charles, Coach, his mom, and even Principal Marshall. Consider the importance of each of these figures in Ghost’s life. Then write an essay or prepare a speech about a trusted adult in your own life. Why do you trust this person?
2. Jason Reynolds uses world records as a framing motif in the novel. Research world records and create a poster about some of the most interesting world records that you find. If you were going to try to break a world record, which one would you attempt?
4. When Coach asks Ghost’s mother to let him join the team, Ghost reflects, “I felt like I had seen this in every single sports movie I had ever watched. All of them. Ma’am, your son has potential. If this went like the movies, I was either going to score the game-winning touchdown (which is impossible in track) or . . . die.” As a class, compare Ghost to a classic sports movie (ex. Rudy, Bend It Like Beckham, Miracle, Hoop Dreams, 42, The Bad News Bears, Jim Thorpe—All American). Are there any similarities between the film you watch and Ghost?
5. Work with your physical education department to organize a Ghost-inspired class, trying out some of the training exercises and races. How did this experience enrich your understanding of Reynolds’s novel?
6. One of the central conflicts in the novel involves Ghost’s desire to acquire an expensive pair of running shoes. Research the development of running shoe technology. What types of shoes are on the market? What features are important in a running shoe? Which brands have the highest ratings? If you had to choose one pair of running shoes, which one would you choose? Write a persuasive essay that uses rhetorical appeals to justify your choice.
7. Look back at Chapter Five, paying specific attention to the scene in Everything Sports. Re-write this scene from Tia’s point of view. What do you think happened when she realized that Ghost stole the shoes? How would she have felt when Ghost returned with Coach and apologized?
8. Coach tells Ghost that he wants to show him, “You can’t run away from who you are, but what you can do is run toward who you want to be.” How does Castle try to run from who he is? What kind of person does he want to be? How has finding his team helped him start to become that person? Try applying Coach’s advice to your own life: What kind of person do you want to be? What could help you become that person?
9. Working with a group, try to translate Ghost into film. Which aspects of the book would translate especially well to film (ex. dialogue, setting, character, conflict)? You may choose to create a book trailer for the novel or adapt a scene in the book into a screenplay and film it.
Guide prepared by Amy Jurskis, English Department Chair at Oxbridge Academy.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Jason Reynolds is a New York Times bestselling author, a Newbery Award Honoree, a Printz Award Honoree, National Book Award Honoree, a Kirkus Award winner, a two-time Walter Dean Myers Award winner, an NAACP Image Award Winner, and the recipient of multiple Coretta Scott King honors. The American Booksellers Association’s 2017 and 2018 spokesperson for Indies First, his many books include When I Was the Greatest, Boy in the Black Suit, All American Boys (cowritten with Brendan Kiely), As Brave as You, For Every One, the Track series (Ghost, Patina, Sunny, and Lu), and Long Way Down, which received both a Newbery Honor and a Printz Honor. He lives in Washington, DC. You can find his ramblings at JasonWritesBooks.com.