Walter Dean Myers Essay - Critical Essays

Walter Dean Myers American Literature Analysis

Myers is best known as an author of children’s literature and young-adult fiction. He has also written nonfiction books focusing on African American history. One of his primary goals as a writer is to create novels that intrigue and instruct children and teens. His target audience seems to be young impoverished people of color who have been neglected by mainstream literature. However, any young person struggling with coming-of-age issues can relate to Myers’s characters. He realistically portrays contemporary and historical figures with whom his young readers can identify. His plots are action-packed and fast-moving, yet his settings and descriptions are rendered in great detail. His contemporary characters tend to be drawn from the ghetto world that he once knew intimately.

A thread that runs through many of his books for teens is the search for ideals. Myers writes about young people overcoming a harsh environment, senseless violence, and dysfunctional families by developing inner values. His characters face complex ethical choices but usually find an honorable path. As an author, it is Myers’s intent to instill values in young people who have been devalued or undervalued themselves.

Myers believes that in order to reach his readers, they must be able to identify with the actions, thoughts, and emotions of his protagonists. The language, settings, and plots must be relevant to young people, especially marginalized African Americans. He often uses the first-person viewpoint, which provides immediate access to the protagonist’s mind. In seeking to establish common ground with his adolescent readers, he uses slang frequently. Some readers in the twenty-first century might find some of the language dated; however, the plot lines and themes that inform Myers’s work have already endured—and been enjoyed—for decades.

Although his books tend to be written from the perspective of an inner-city, African American male, his coming-of-age theme is universal. The crisis may vary from book to book, but each protagonist endures a rite of passage from childhood into adulthood. In Hoops (1981), a gifted high-school basketball player discovers from a has-been pro that the real game of life does not have a scoreboard and that only inner values can guide his next moves. The main character in Fallen Angels (1988) goes through a classic rite of passage—war. As a soldier, he learns how to love and retain his own humanity despite the senseless violence of war. In Monster, a sixteen-year-old man on trial for his life begins to question his role in a vicious crime. He wonders if he is guilty of perpetuating the ruthless laws of the ghetto, regardless of whether the court acquits him.

Myers uses setting to emphasize the shift from childhood to adulthood. The backdrops for his stories are usually unequivocally adult. His young characters find themselves making decisions in the real world and facing real consequences. For example, in The Young Landlords (1979), a group of teens takes on the responsibility of managing a ghetto apartment building and learns a great deal about themselves in the process. A prison and a courtroom become Steve Harmon’s entire world in Monster, and there are few environments more mortal than the battlefield in Fallen Angels.

In essence, Myers writes about young people making choices. This is not unique in young-adult fiction. However, Myers’s characters tend to be faced with choices that have life-or-death consequences. When Cal in Hoops decides not to go along with the gang controlling a tournament, his decision ends in his death. In Fallen Angels, every step that Richie Perry takes “out in the boonies” (the Vietnamese jungle) could cause or prevent another death. The subject matter and language in Myers’s books are often raw. Gambling, war, drug use, suicide, teen pregnancy, homicide, adoption, and parental neglect are subjects that have brought three of his books to the edge of censorship by school systems. While these topics may seem dramatically harsh to some readers, they are merely reflections of daily life to others. One of Myers’s gifts is showing young people, regardless of age, race, and social status, that they can live up to their ideals in any situation.


First published: 1981

Type of work: Novel

A young basketball player learns from a mentor about the financial and spiritual risks of the game.

In Hoops, Myers makes the game of basketball symbolize the game of life. Basketball was one of Myers’s passions; it was an escape from the frustrations of school, a time to bond with other kids his age, and just plain fun. He depicts the basketball scenes in his books with astounding clarity and from an insider’s perspective. Hoops seems at first to be an action-packed sports novel but is soon revealed as a moral tale about choices and integrity.

The main character in Hoops is seventeen-year-old Lonnie Jackson, who clings to a dream that he will become a professional basketball player. He is a senior in high school and is feeling tense about what his next steps in life will be. Basketball could be a way out of Harlem, a way to accrue status in the world, and a way to have some self-esteem. Lonnie is one of the best players in Harlem. He believes that there is a real chance that his dream could come true.

Lonnie rarely stays at home with his mother. He has an arrangement with the manager of a...

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