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While Meyers makes representative musical, literary, and historical references, he also describes compelling images of the residents, their hopes, dreams, spirits, and sadness.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