Walter Dean Myers has been described as having a genius for creating realistic, gritty settings that serve as backdrops for his frequently dark dramas involving inner-city youth attempting to escape the destructive effects of the ghetto, urban life, and poverty that have plagued young African Americans. Myers’s novels tend to focus on young male characters (although female characters play supporting roles) and their confrontations with hopelessness and the forging of their identities—most often in a world where they lack role models, paths to freedom, and any vision of reality other than that determined by their environment. This “literary naturalism” in settings sometimes involves the battlefield (as in Fallen Angels and Sunrise over Fallujah), but the protagonists usually hail from Myers’s own Harlem. Harlem itself is a paradoxical metaphor in many of Myers’ novels: a place of both damnation and redemption. In the crucible of inner-city poverty, his protagonists are made or broken.
A prominent theme recognized by critics in Myers’s fiction is the desperate need for male bonding in some form—through surrogate father figures (in the absence of effective parents), through characters’ reinvention of themselves as fathers or older brothers, or through the negotiation of friendship—for the male hero to self-actualize and create a moral core that transcends environment. In his analysis of four of Myers’s novels, literary critic Dennis Vellucci asserts that within such settings, Myers’s protagonists face crises that threaten their self-growth and the building of moral character and yet, more often than not, they muster the strength “to retain an innate sensitivityand to avoid or reject the gang membership, violent behavior, and illegal activity” characteristic of their milieu. In their conflicts with their environment, Myers’s central characters define who they are, mature, and discover internal truths. Myers thus offers hope and a possible blueprint for young black readers.
A particular strength of Myers’s style is his unerring ear for the resonances of the street life, which he portrays through his characters’ voices. Characters are clearly delineated not only by what they say but also by how they speak. Rudine Sims Bishop notes Myers’s ability to “capture the way urban African-American teenagerstalk to each other.” Furthermore, she asserts that “these kinds of oral expressions come out of traditional African American discourse styles.” In short, through his characters, Myers replicates the rhythms and cadences of black teenage culture—a culture overlooked both by its participants and by other, nonblack, youths.
Another aspect of Myers’s engaging style is his ability to create characters who evoke the reader’s sympathy and empathy, often through humor. Even though sometimes crass, with a tough-guy persona, Pee Wee Gates in Fallen Angels is a supremely endearing character whose humor enables him and the protagonist to “get through” combat—and their lives. Finally, Myers’s novels...
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