The story is set in Harlem in the midst of drug runners and winos. Much of the action takes place in the family apartment—the place where Jamal's older brother Randy was arrested by the police, where the family lives with the barest necessities, where Sassy and Jamal bicker, and where their father comes on rare occasions and lowers Jamal's self esteem. In contrast, the apartment where Tito and his grandmother live is a safe haven, a place of warmth, love, and good food.
Jamal has to deal with a bully every day at school where the teachers are insensitive, arrogant, and derogatory. The storeroom of the school is the scene of Jamal's confrontation with Dwayne. It is here that Jamal realizes the power of the gun to equalize the odds.
Part of the conflict takes place in a crack house where the Scorpions vie for leadership of the gang, and Jamal takes over because of the gun in his belt. There is also a park where drug addicts and winos lie around. High on drugs, Indian and Angel try to kill Jamal with a switchblade there, and Tito's life is changed forever when he shoots two of the Scorpions.
The place of dreams for the future is the boat dock. The boys go there to admire the yachts and to think of growing up, owning, racing, and sailing them to Puerto Rico. It is a place to get away from the problems of their own neighborhood and a place to think.
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The action and development of character are mostly achieved through what people say and how they say it. Dialogue is all in what is commonly called black or variant English with some street words, but there is not much profanity considering the kind of people Indian, Angel, and Mack are. A few off-color words are used in order to make the book realistic.
There is sometimes "jive talk," such as: ". . . he came loud-mouthing me in front of everybody;" "I got the heat karate can't beat. Miss three five seven and a ticket to heaven;" "So what you soupin' up to him for?;" "Girl, if I take my shoe off, you going to wish you had your hind parts in your room!;" "I ain't gonna punk out." Whenever Myers uses idioms that might not be easily understood, he gives enough other information so that readers will understand the phrases. For instance, when Mack brags about having done the shooting, somebody "dropped a dime on him," and the police pick him up. Readers know what happened, but they may not know that the saying comes from the time when it cost a dime to use a pay phone to call and turn him in. When the wino says that he could really hoop, he means that he used to be a good basketball player.
There is some poetic language and symbolism in the book. For instance, there are pigeons on the window ledge and more across the street "their gray bodies looking like stones on the edge of the roof." Other examples are: Jamal's words "had lain in the bottom of...
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This book deals with societal problems— broken families, crimes committed with guns, the legal system, the drug trade, "crackheads," poverty, self-image, the school system, and peer pressure. Each is handled with sensitivity and without preaching. Yet the characters and events are treated in such a way that young people can see for themselves the dangers.
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Topics for Discussion
1. How important is it for ethnic groups to use standard English? Jamal likes grammar, and could use good language if he wanted to, but at school he uses the word "yeah" to answer Mr. Davidson's question, and the principal corrects him. " 'Yes' . . . At least try to talk as if you're civilized." How would he be regarded if he used "good" English in his neighborhood?
2. Why do the Scorpions not want members as old as Randy and Mack? Why do they want young boys?
3. Which incidents in the book show that these adults do not respect or care for children?
4. Discuss this statement, "Guys who were tough seemed tougher when they weren't too smart."
5. Discuss Mama's statement, "Tito, sometimes we women got to be harder on you young boys than we want to be. You know that and I know that. Me and your grandmother, we try our best, but God knows it's hard. We say things we don't mean because to say the things we mean is just too hurtin'."
6. List times when Jamal has trouble at school and what the principal and teachers do or say. What could or should the principal do? How could the school make a positive difference in the boys' lives? Is this treatment going on in schools outside of Harlem?
7. Jamal does not want to become "a thrown away person." What does he mean? What should he do to make sure that he does not become one?
8. Discuss the relationship between Jamal and his father. Why does his...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Research the use of slang, the part it plays in social groups, and how it comes in and goes out of use. Collect slang words and phrases, then define them, use in them sentences, and create a dictionary of slang (perhaps called "Slanguage"). Ask older people what slang words they used when they were young.
2. Research what goes on in institutions for juvenile delinquents? What conditions and restrictions do the inmates live with? How many are rehabilitated and better because of the incarceration, and how many go on to more crime and more jail terms? Jamal thinks he knows what jail was like. "The big guys ganged up on you and beat you up and then they had sex with you." Is he right? Probation officers, guards, police officers, or former inmates could contribute to this research.
3. Choose a character such as Mack, Indian, Abuela, Mr. Davidson, Sassy, or Mr. Gonzalez, and write a character study of that person. Write some part of the story from that person's standpoint.
4. Find out how drug rings operate both in big cities and in your own area. Someone from the police or sheriff's department could speak to the group.
5. Research a minority group in the United States. What are the numbers and where do they settle? What kind of prejudice arises against the minority? Who are the leaders of the group? How well are they educated? What kind of jobs do they do? It may be possible to get a guest speaker from the minority...
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Scorpions deals with growing up black or Puerto Rican in a slum section of a big city where gangs, drugs, broken homes, poverty, poor schools, and violence are a constant threat. Another novel that deals with living in the ghetto or about gangs is Paula Fox's, How Many Miles to Babylon?? (1967). In it, to escape harsh reality, James fantasizes that he is really an African prince whose ancestors were brought to America to be slaves. While playing at his fantasy in an abandoned house, he is caught by a gang and forced to take part in the theft of valuable dogs. He becomes stronger as he escapes and assumes responsibility for the dogs, and he realizes the truth about himself, his mother, and his place in the ghetto.
In Eleanor Hull's Moncho and the Dukes (1968), two boys living in the same building in East Harlem are having problems in school and in their neighborhood. A church-sponsored gang takes them in with the aim of doing good instead of violence.
In Kristin Hunter's The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou (1969), Lou is a fourteen year old girl who is a member of a gang that has weapons. Hatred for whites, acceptance of self, violence involving police, and gang action are factors in the story which ends in the success of their singing group. Students could compare the realism in Scorpions with what they find in The Soul Brothers and discuss which book is more believable.
Stephen M. Joseph's...
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For Further Reference
"Author's View." Scholastic Book Talk (Spring 1992): 6. Scholastic puts out promotional material about authors and books in connection with book sales. Although it helps to sell books, it is also helpful for teachers. Bishop, Rudine Sims. Presenting Walter Dean Myers. Boston: Twayne, 1990. As an adjunct to the reading of Scorpions, students may be interested in knowing something about the author and what brought him to write the book. It could be used for a special report, or a teacher could use it as a part of his or her presentation of the novel.
——. "Profile: Walter Dean Myers." Language Arts 67 (December 1990): 862-866. This is a shortened version of Bishop's book listed above. In order to do the book and the article he had a personal interview and several phone calls with Myers and used information from speeches given by the author. Material form the article could be used by the teacher to introduce the unit on Scorpions.
Evory, Ann, ed. Contemporary Authors. Detroit: Gale, 1978: 592-593. Provides personal information as well as career moves and writings. Useful for background information about the author to go along with the study of the book.
Grambs, Jean Dresden, and John C. Carr. Black Image: Education Copes with Color. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown, 1972: 122-146. This guide for teachers addresses how to work with different perspectives which black students bring to the classroom. The chapters...
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