Thursday, July 1, 2010

Review: The Afterlife by Gary Soto

Author: Gary Soto

Title: The Afterlife

Illustrator: none noted

Publisher: Harcourt, Inc.

Publication Date: 2003

ISBN: 0-15-204774-3


Chuy was an average high school guy, not good-looking, not great at school or sports, just average. He was looking forward to a night out with a beautiful girl, maybe getting lucky and steal a kiss. Then he was dead... for no good reason. He only complemented a guy on his shoes. For this, Chuy was stabbed three times and left for dead on a bathroom floor in a club. Chuy couldn’t believe it! But death isn’t final, yet. Chuy visits friends, family, and enemies as he tries to understand what happened and didn’t happen in his life and death. He discovers compassion for others, even for the one who killed him, and he discovers true love in the spirit of a girl named Crystal. Why now, as he is slowly disappearing, part by part? Together Chuy and Crystal make peace with their life and set out to explore the rest of their future.


The Afterlife is a story designed to define and build Chuy’s character. It includes details that draw the reader into Chuy’s world, with some cultural descriptions and Spanish language that add authenticity. The main event, Chuy’s death, occurs at the beginning of the first chapter. He is a young man looking forward to a date with a beautiful girl and planning his strategy. After all, he is only an ordinary-looking guy. After complimenting a guy on his shoes, Chuy is stabbed three times and left to die in a pool of blood “the color of pomegranate juice” on the bathroom floor of Club Estrella. “How come?” he asks, but he never receives an answer. As he leaves his body, he realizes his life is gone. He worries about his friends, Angel and Rachel, who were waiting for him, his primo Eddie, his Tio Richard, and his parents who would now be all alone since he was an only child. At the same time, he realizes that he doesn’t feel any anger toward the murderer.

His initial fear as he floats upward soon turns into a young boy’s excitement over new sensations. “I could see the outline of myself, which was sort of like a figure penciled in and then erased on paper...It’s a trip,” Chuy thought. “I had nothing to fear.” He karate chops a bus, socks the wall of a church, and slips through walls and doors. He thought could even go into a bank vault, but he couldn’t take any of the feria. Chuy floats around town, sometimes with control, other times without, like a balloon kicked along by the wind. The sounds of radios “crying out Mexican songs” and the aroma of carne asada or chicharrones make him wish he could eat. He thinks about his parents and grandfather, and apologizes for little misunderstandings, for stealing, for poor grades, for denting the car. He realizes that he may not have messed up big-time, but he never focused on a goal or did anything really good.

He sees Yellow Shoes, the kid with “the mean face of a teenage rat,” the kid who killed him. Chuy follows him in anger, hitting him with a ghostly fist, then riding him like a burro, only to discover the life Yellow Shoes leads under the control of an old school bully is pathetic. It’s hard to hate something that pathetic. Chuy visits his school and his friends, finding that he can make them sense his presence through the chill of his touch or breath. He leaves behind comforting words and compliments, helps a helpless dog, intervenes in an unhappy marriage, and tries to stop his cousin and his mother from taking revenge on an unidentified killer. His compassion is rewarded when he meets Crystal, a girl who recently killed herself. Like a typical teenage boy, Chuy becomes “all macho,” showing off by letting a car go through him, but he teaches her how to control her spirit body. Over time, he helps her to come to terms with her own actions and death even though he is slowly disappearing. Chuy tries to save the life of a homeless man, someone he would have previously ignored when he was alive.

Despite all of the growth in compassion and concern for others that Chuy has experienced, he is still a teenage boy who enjoys going to a last ball game for free and who falls in love with the first beautiful girl he sees that pays attention to him. In this, he remains the young man who dreams of a happy ever after. “They say autumn is the color of death.... We were like the tint of fallen leaves, grass burnt by the first frost, and the ashen-colored fog that sometimes rises from the valley floor and smothers our dreams.” Chuy’s dream of a regular life had ended abruptly, but he had “received a portion of that dream (with Crystal) and felt grateful for it.”

My only criticism with the book is in regards to the use of Spanish words amidst the English text. This was necessary to establish the character’s culture and language, but there were many times that the Spanish language, although used as it would naturally occur, was not decipherable through the context to an English-only reader. The need to use the glossary at the end of the book occurred too often. Footnotes, in addition to a glossary, would have assisted the English reader without breaking up the flow of the story.

Review excerpts:

Booklist (August 2003) “He (Soto) not only paints the scenery brilliantly but also captures the pain that follows an early death. In many ways, this is as much a story about a hardscrabble place as it is about a boy who is murdered. Both pulse with life and will stay in memory.” (Gr. 7-10)

Horn Book (November/December 2003) “Soto send the couple floating toward the afterlife with poetic metaphors of autumn, defining the book not as tragic reality but ghostly romance.”

Kirkus Review (September 15, 2003) “Soto writes with a touch as light as Chuy’s ghost and with humor, wonderment, and a generosity toward life.” (12+)

Publishers Weekly (August 25. 2003) “The author counterbalances difficult ideas with moments of genuine tenderness as well as a provocative lesson about the importance of savoring every moment....” (Ages 12-up)

School Library Journal (November 1, 2003) “Soto’s simple and poetic language, leavened with Mexican Spanish with such care to context that the appended glossary is scarcely needed, is clear, but Chuy’s ultimate destiny isn’t.” (Gr. 6 Up)


The Skipping Stones Honor Awards 2004

Americas Award Commended 2003

California Recommended Readings in Literature List 2004


Death visits us in many ways, strangers, pets, friends, and family. Whatever you may believe happens after death, the ones left behind must find a way to cope, just as Chuy’s friends, family, and even his murderer had to deal with Chuy’s death and their survival. If none of your students have experienced a recent death, a class discussion about grieving can be built around several good books. (A child who has experienced a recent death in their life may not be able to handle a class discussion.)

A number of good picture books can be introduced that deal with death. Bird by Zetta Elliott is the story of a young boy whose brother dies from a drug overdose. An elderly family friend helps Bird to come to terms with his brother’s life and death. Everett Anderson’s Goodbye by Lucille Clifton deals with the death of a father. I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm is about the death of a pet.

Just as in The Afterlife by Gary Soto, Alice Sebold’s adult novel The Lovely Bones is from the victim’s perspective after a violent death. A few good chapter books for younger students (4th grade-up) include Blackberries After Dark by Mavis Jukes (death of a grandfather), Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (death of a friend), Each Little Bird that Sings by Deborah Wiles (death of a great-uncle), Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata (death of a sister), Missing May by Cynthia Rylant (death of an aunt), and Umbrella Summer by Lisa Graff (death of a brother).

The following books are nonfiction books that may help children deal with death and the grief that they, and those around them, feel.

Beyond the tears : helping Jewish kids cope with death by Eugene I. Kwalwasser (2006). This book provides help for Jewish children dealing with the loss of a loved one and explains Jewish mourning customs.

Death by Janine Amos with photographs by Howard Davies (2010) uses letters, stories, and informational text to provide advice for children on how to cope with the death of a loved one. (K-3)

Death by Sarah Levete (2010) explores the religious customs and beliefs on death from Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh perspectives. (Gr. 5-8)

Death and dying by Carol Antoinette Peacock (2004) defines grief and discusses ways to cope with the death of a loved one. (Middle school)

Death & dying by Bruce Sanders (2007) presents information on death in a question-and-answer format, discussing fear, funerals, the process of grief, and how to help someone who is grieving.


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