Saturday, November 17, 2007

Biography & Critical Analysis of Walter Dean Myers


This 5 time Coretta Scott King Award winner came from humble beginnings. Born in West Virginia in 1937, he was left motherless at the age of three but was in no way an orphan. His father entrusted him to the care of his God parents, the Deans, who raised him in the cultural Mecca of that time, HARLEM. His beloved city, Harlem, appears to have had a profound impact on him. He weaves stories of characters from Harlem up and down the pages of his books like rich tapestries on a wall. He seems to have captured the pulse of Harlem and is able to articulate it on a page which allows the reader to see the rich colors, tastes, smells and voices of the community.

His love of writing actually developed out of necessity. As a young child, he had a speech impediment which prevented him from pronouncing certain types of words. When he was asked to read out loud in class he would freeze up from nervousness. At the age of 9, his teacher suggested that he write his own poems consisting only of words he could pronounce so that he could read them out loud. His love of writing started there and blossomed into a career spanning 40 years and includes over 70 published Children's and Young Adult books.

He has also received critical acclaim in the literary community as the recipient of 5 Coretta Scott King Awards, 2 Newberry Medals, 1 Caldecott Medal, the 1994 SLJ/YALSA Margaret A. Edwards Award for Outstanding Literature for Young Adults and was the first recipient of the Michael J. Printz Award.

His career as a full time author wasn't a 1st, 2nd, or even 3rd career move. His winding career path lead him through the Army, Post Office, Department of Labor, and other destinations before stopping at the wonderful world of Children's and Young Adult Literature. Of this winding career path he says, "...because I didn't have much in the way of formal education, most of my jobs sucked. I was working as a messenger when I made the decision to seriously turn to writing. What was available to me at that time, were cheap magazines (Yes, I wrote for the National Enquirer), sports magazines, and as a result of a contest, books for young people." The contest he is speaking of actually resulted in the publishing of his first book, Where Does the Day Go, in 1969. So at the age of 32 he embarked on a journey as a professional author.

When asked what draws him to Young Adult Literature he says, "The young adult and middle grade periods of my life were so vivid and, in looking back, so influential in how I would live the rest of my life, that I am drawn to it over and over again."

His Young Adult books often deals with authentic, complex, sobering and sometimes painful themes which are reflective of ebb and flow of the lives of young adults. In discussing his feelings on Young Adult Literature he says, "The special place of the young adult novel should be in its ability to address the needs of the reader to understand his or her relationships with the world, each other, and with adults. The young adult novel often allows the reader to directly identify with a protagonist of similar interests and development."

Not all of his books deal with sobering themes. He also has quite a sense of humor, which is showcased in Smiffy Blue: Ace Crime Detective: The Case of the Missing Ruby and Other Stories and The Righteous Revenge of Artemis Bonner.

Smiffy Blue is a detective who solves crimes by following the most off-the-wall clues imaginable. Myers inspirations for writing Smiffy Blue came from stories he would tell his son. He would make the stories progressively sillier and challenge his son to guess how the story would end.

The Righteous Revenge of Artemis Bonner is historical fiction. Artemis and his trusty side kick, Frolic, embark on a journey across the United States to avenge the death of his slain uncle Ugly and find his treasure before Catfish Grimes, who killed his uncle Ugly, gets to it first. When asked about branching out into other genres such as historical fiction he says, "My stories are an extension of my life. I've always been a person who wanted to explore every facet of life and different ways of expressing the human experience.

"I'm surprised to actually be able to make money doing this thing I love."


Walter Dean Myers is a virtual literary chameleon. He has written picture books, poetry, short stories, novels, formula fiction, historical fiction, and biographies. He has an inept ability to write in the voice of a young adult about issues as sobering as teen homicide and as silly as the secret formula to un-pop popcorn. When I began reading his books I wondered if he has a sense of humor. I also wondered if all of his novels focus on young adults at emotional and societal crossroads. Shortly after questioning the breadth of his work I happened upon, Smiffy Blue: Ace Crime Detective and The Righteous Revenge of Artemis Bonner.

These books are hilarious. Both books center around African American, male, dynamic duos who are on journeys to solve an unanswered mystery. Smiffy Blue has his uncleaver side kick, Jeremy Joe and Artemis Bonner has his trusty but inexperienced tag-a-long, Frolic. In both cases the second half of the duo (Jeremy Joe and Frolic) serve as a sort of comic foil to the main characters. They also appear less experienced and need the main characters to survive.

On their journeys they both encounter characters with unique names. Their names either rhyme or reveal something about them. For example, Smiffy Blue and Jeremy Joe work with Inspector Hector, Dr. Seymore Orless, Stash McCash, Penny Stamp and Nick Nasty. Artemis and Frolic encounter such characters as Catfish Grimes, Uncle Ugly, and Lucy Featherdip.

Myers also uses unique language which adds to the humor and “down home” feeling of the books. In The Righteous Revenge of Artemis Bonner he uses colloquial language. For example, when Artemis had done some work at a tannery he came out smelling awful. He got on a stage coach to get to his next destination and had the following conversation with the stage coach driver,

" You always stink like that?" the driver asked me. "Only when I am about to shoot somebody...does the smell come upon me." "You smell like you fixing to shoot the whole United State Army," he said.

The humor comes out in the use of "fixing to shoot," and gives me a familiar connection with the way the older members of my family speak.

In Smiffy Blue: Ace Crime Detective Myers uses a plethora of rhyming words. Each time Smiffy Blue finds a clue, he and his trusted side-kick, Jeremy Joe have the following exchange:

"Smiffy blue has found a clue!" cried Jeremy Joe. "I have indeed found a clue!" said Smiffy Blue.

They are men on missions but that is about where the similarities end. The books represent two different genres. Smiffy Blue is Formula Fiction (series). Within the book there are 4 separate capers to solve. There is also a predictable storyline. Smiffy receives a call from inspector Hector, he and Jeremy Joe go to the scene of the crime, follow a list of increasingly silly clues, and some how solve the crime. The righteous Revenge of Artemis Bonner is a Historical Fiction Novel. Artemis has the same objective throughout the book. He is on a journey to avenge the death of his uncle Ugly by killing Catfish Grimes and finding his uncle's treasure.

The settings also separate the books. Artemis is on an adventure in 1882 which takes him to real places, such as the OK Corral in Tombstone Arizona. He also meets real historical figures such as Wyatt Earp. In contrast, Smiffy Blue solves crimes in the fictional, Doober City and encounters all fictional characters.

Unlike Smiffy Blue, Artemis doesn't always win. Artemis gets beat up multiple times, gets sick, is often outwitted and has to work to earn money to complete his mission. On the other hand, Smiffy Blue is always triumphant and his day consists of solving a crime and going home satisfied.

I felt that Smiffy Blue: Ace Crime Detective is for younger audiences who want to be entertained and enjoy formula fiction. I personally had a hard time reading the book. Although it is only 74 pages and the words are in big print, it took me longer to read it because it was so silly. When I started reading the book, I thought he was going to seriously solve a crime. I would read a sentence over and over again trying to make sense of it. I finally realized, it is not supposed to make since. The point of the book is that Smiffy Blue solves crimes just by coincidence because his reasoning doesn't logically lead to the answer.

I was, however, taken in by the illustrations. I absolutely love the way the characters are portrayed. The characters look like the hopped out of the T.V. show, Good Times, and right into the book. Each one of the characters is dressed to the Nines. The men where polyester, checker-board print pants, trench coats and derbies. The woman wear cute minis skirts, foxy coats, and their hair is always salon ready!

The use of language in Smiffy Blue: Ace Crime Detective is actually poetic. Reading the words quietly does not do the book justice. He has built a lot of comical rhymes into the book but you can't hear the comedy unless you read it out loud. A teacher would entertain a class and teach them about rhyme patterns by reading this book out loud to his or her class.

I really enjoyed The Righteous Revenge of Artemis Bonner. You wouldn't really know that Artemis is an inexperienced 15 year old by listening to him. He is a child who speaks with the intelligence of a well mannered adult. He sounds like a mature man with high regard for good morals and proper decorum. However, on the inside he is a kid. A very brave kid, but nonetheless, a kid. I think this would be appealing to adolescent readers because they often feel that they are smarter than adult. Artemis feels the same way, which is half of the reason he is outwitted so often.

I also liked the way Myers fused history and geography into the book. The book is set in 1882 in the Wild West. Artemis traveled across North American and into Alaska chasing Catfish Grimes. Reading this book really made me want to look up dates, historical figures, and geography facts so that I could really experience his journey with him. This is a great book to use in conjunction with a social studies unit on the Wild West.

Smiffy Blue and Artemis Bonner were men on missions. Their missions took them to vastly different places and they achieved their objectives in totally different ways but they both will provide a thrill for young readers. Both books are extremely useful for Independent, Read Aloud, or Shared reading. As I noted earlier, they can also be useful in conjunction with other subject matter.

It has been a wonderful journey learning about the life and works of Walter Dean Myers. Studying the works of Walter Dean Myers has helped me to understand that as an educator there is a plethora of novels, short stories, poems and biographies which I can use in conjunction with other subjects to broaden my students learning and help them develop critical literacy. On a personal note, studying his life was hope inspiring because I learned about someone who changed careers at the age of 32 and made a career out of what he loves to do!

So there you have it, two wonderful books for young adult readers!

No comments: