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Walter Dean Myers' Harlem, Children's Poetry Picture Book Critique and Activities

Myers, Walter Dean. Harlem. Ill. Christopher Myers. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.

Category: Caldecott Award; African American; picture book, black history month

Approximate age group: upper elementary


Critique & Analysis followed by Activities:

Walter  Dean Myers and Christopher Myers (father and son) have collaborated for  a second time (first with Shadow of the Red Moon), this time with the  inspired and impassioned Harlem. The text is set in 14 point Gothic no.  2; a bold font elaborating on the powerful story of Harlem brought to  life in this over-sized poetry picture book.

While the poem and the illustrations each tell a tale of their own,  they combine their strength, flow, movement, and soulful expression to  make what is perhaps one of the most resounding, effective, soulful  books for children. With the guidance of a well-prepared teacher, this  book can be an asset and a great contribution to young minds. Do not  wait for African American month or Poetry week to use this book as a  learning tool. It has a lot to offer in so many respects.

The full scope of Harlem is portrayed in Walter Meyers’ exquisite  free-verse poem. His style is rich with allusion and a strong sense of  place. The jazzy improvisational quality resonates with stirring sound,  refusing to sit still, and demanding to be read aloud.

Sun yellow shirts on burnt umber

Bodies

Demanding to be heard, seen

Sending out warriors

From streets that know to be

Mourning still as a lone radio tells us how Jack

Johnson/Joe Louis/ Sugar Ray is doing with our

Hopes

Here Hughes refers to the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson; Joseph Louis Barrow, “The Brown Bomber”, held Heavyweight Champion title longer than any man in history; and 1976 Olympic gold medalist, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard.

While  Meyers makes representative musical, literary, and historical  references, he also describes compelling images of the residents, their  hopes, dreams, spirits, and sadness.

Each stanza flows into the next, so that pages must be turned, and connections must be made.

Where one page ends:

Listening

For the coming of the blues

the next begins:

A weary blues that Langston knew

and Countee sung. 

The author is referring here to writer/poet Langston Hughes 1902-1956, and to writer/poet Countee Cullen 1903-1946.

Myers ends his poem as simple as he began, with the title, “Harlem”.

While Christopher Myers’ illustration styles are diverse from book to  book, they are always well suited.

Here, his ink, gouache, and  cut-paper collage illustrations are bold, vivid, and endowed with the  colors of the town, culture, and peoples that are Harlem. The illustrations speak,  flow, and are alive with movement, stillness, and passion, sometimes  stretching across pages, sometimes framed in contrasting white.

Christopher Myers ends his illustrations with the corner of W 125 St. and Dr. Martin Luther Blvd., the heart of Harlem.

The 2012 National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Walter Dean Myers, talks about the impact learning to read had on him and why it's important for him to tell of the urban African American experience.

He also discusses Harlem's musical influences in his books and the ways in which working with his son challenges him to work harder and better.

Children's book author Walter Dean Myers (Harlem) talks about a discovery he made in childhood: that books are a path to a world beyond our own neighborhoods.


ACTIVITIES

Talk  about the media used by the illustrator and have the students make  collages of their own to represent something in their lives or  community.

Have them research and present one of the references made by Myers  (from Lady Day - singer Billie Holiday, to Marcus Garvey, giant of Black  liberation and founder of U.N.I.A. - Universal Negro Improvement  Association).

Have children compare the styles and messages of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen with those of this book.

Read Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop, by Chris Raschka (1992). 

charlie parker played beebop.jpg