WOW Review: Volume XV, Issue 3

The silhouettes of three young boys runs across a beach during the sunset.Blood Brothers
Written by Rob Sanders
Reycraft Books, 2022, 476 pp
ISBN: 978-1478869276

This heartbreaking verse novel based on a true story covers a 14-day period in August 1987. Three white brothers, Calvin, Charlie and Curtis Johnston, are hemophiliacs who have contracted HIV from tainted blood infusions, thus they call themselves the Blood Brothers. All three have been kicked out of elementary school, Boy Scouts, Little League and their church due to their condition.

The boys’ mother fights for them to return to school, even taking her request to court where the judge proclaims: “No reason / medically or legally / to keep the Johnston brothers / out of school” (p. 55). Much of the community is outraged by this decision, showing up at a school board meeting—shouting, chanting and waving hate filled signs. The angry citizens share their thoughts at the microphone: “But I don’t want / those kids with my son. / It’s not safe. / Not healthy. / Plain and simple” (p. 103).

Each month the family visits their grandparents’ cabin at the beach where they can be normal boys: digging trenches in the sand, creating forts with driftwood, returning conch shells to the ocean, roping off turtle nests from tourists and hanging out with their beach sister, Izzy. Although Calvin tells Izzy, his best friend, that she is the fish eyes to his fish guts, he doesn’t share his biggest secret—that he is HIV positive.

When the Johnston family thinks things can’t get any worse, they find open trash bags in their front yard, graffiti sprayed on the front of their home with unfriendly messages: “AIDS SUCKS! / GET OUT OF TOWN! / NO! NO! NO!” (p. 108), and they are harassed day and night by anonymous phone calls: “Next time, / there will be gunshots” (p. 170), showing readers how fear and hate can mimic a virus. When the brothers finally return to school, they are demoted one grade level because the district doesn’t recognize home schooling as valid education. Furthermore, some families pull their children from school because they are so worried their children will be infected. The boys are not allowed to use the school restrooms, water fountains or eat their lunch in the cafeteria. They are spit on, cussed at, called names, and assaulted by their classmates.

The next time the family visits the beach, their secret is completely out, and Izzy’s Gramps forbids her from spending time with the brothers because he’s afraid she will get their disease. But the best friends find a way to communicate and see each other anyway. Izzy encourages Calvin or “Poet Boy” to use his long-silent voice to fight against these prejudices. Calvin begins writing poems about his experiences and reads aloud the following one to his sixth-grade class:

I am the boy with HIV.
But that is not all of me.
I’m a brother.
A poet.
A dreamer.
I’m a beach lover.
And a baseball player.
I’m a son. And a friend to
Anyone who’ll be a friend to me.

I am the boy with HIV.
But that is not all of me.
I want to date someday.
Maybe even kiss a girl.
I want to graduate from high school.
Maybe go to college.
I want to get married.
Maybe have some kids.

I am the boy with HIV.
But that is not all of me.
Don’t look at me
Scared of what you think you’ll catch.
Look at me
Excited for what I have to give.
I listen.
I hear.
I try to understand.
I’m fair.
I’m honest.
I try to treat everyone
The same—no matter
Who you are,
Or what you are,
Or what you’re not.

I am the boy with HIV.
But that is not all of me.
I am the boy with HIV.
Please don’t let that be all you see (pp. 344-345).

The book closes with several tragic events, but a police officer’s family, Calvin’s sixth grade teacher and a newspaper reporter support and encourage the Johnston family.

The back matter of Blood Brothers contains a playlist, a note from the author, a timeline of AIDS in America, and current information about HIV and AIDS in the United States as well as information about the real brothers (Ricky, Robert and Randy Ray) at the heart of the story.

Sanders mostly writes picturebooks about heroes in the LGBTQIA+ community. Some of his well-known titles include Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag (2018), Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution (2019) and Stitch by Stitch: Cleve Jones and the AIDS Memorial Quilt (2021). Visit for a list of all of his book titles with additional resources. As an elementary language arts teacher in Florida for many years, Sanders’ fourth-grade students encouraged him to become an author and write the books he wished he had when he was growing up (Murphy, 2021). He retired early to write full time yet manages to find time to teach and mentor other writers. He teaches writing for the Highlights Foundation, The Writing Barn and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Florida region.

In an interview with From the Mixed-up Files (n.d.), the author shared that while doing research for one of his informational picturebooks he saw a photograph about the real “blood brothers” in an article in Life (Voboril, 1987). He wrote a poem in response to the photo which eventually became the first poem/chapter in Blood Brothers. In order to write this historical fiction title, he researched the early years of the AIDS epidemic and Ryan White, another hemophiliac who contracted HIV in the 1980s. He watched news reports and documentaries, scoured government websites for statistics and read every magazine and newspaper he could find.

He chose to tell this story through verse because poetry is personal and provides a way to address a difficult topic without overwhelming readers. Rob shared that he would rather engulf readers with emotions than too many words (From the Mixed-up Files, n.d.). One thing he found helpful in writing was to “sit in the scene” and think of every emotion possible as he figured out the best words, phrases, similes, or images to elevate the poetry.

Blood Brothers could be paired with A High-Five for Glenn Burke by Phil Bildner (2020), Ryan White: My Own Story written by Ryan White and Ann Marie Cunningham (1992), What is the AIDS Crisis? by Nico Medina and Tim Foley (2022) and the first children’s book about AIDS, Losing Uncle Tim written by MaryKate Jordan and illustrated by Judith Friedman (1989).

This extraordinary middle-grade novel would be a powerful book as a read aloud or to discuss in literature circles. Readers will be inspired to think about their fears and prejudices, wonder about their own actions and reactions if they were a part of the same classrooms or community as the Johnston brothers, and consider whether they would be brave enough to stand up for someone with HIV, AIDS or another disease and someone different from themselves. Although this book describes unfounded fear and hate, it also depicts agency, love, and hope.

From the mixed-up files of Middle-Grade Authors.

Murphy, P. J. (2021, October 22). Q & A with Rob Sanders. Publisher’s Weekly.

Teaching Books

Voboril, M. (1987, October). The castaways: Fears about AIDS drive three boys from home. Life.

Deanna Day, Washington State University

© 2023 by Deanna Day

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WOW Review, Volume XV, Issue 3 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on work by Deanna Day at

WOW review: reading across cultures
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