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Harlem (Caldecott Honor Book) Hardcover – February 1, 1997
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From School Library Journal
Grade 6 Up. A visually striking, oversized picture book. Walter Dean Myers's songlike poem relates the story of a group of people who settled in New York City, hoping to improve their lots in life, only to discover that racism could still keep them from achieving success. Well-known Harlem landmarks, such as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater, are mentioned, as are famous African Americans, like Langston Hughes and Joe Louis. The pain of discrimination is made abundantly clear through Myers's forceful, often bitter words. The pride and determination of the people of Harlem are also demonstrated, as is their at times overwhelming despair. The bold collage and ink drawings complement the text well. Although the book paints a vibrant picture of the area and its residents, it is difficult to imagine its proposed audience. Many young people will not be able to grasp the subtleties and imagery of the poem or understand its frequent cultural references. The artwork is fresh and eye-catching, but it, too, is sophisticated. Overall, this is an arresting and heartfelt tribute to a well-known, but little understood, community that may take a bit of effort to sell.?Melissa Hudak, North Suburban District Library, Roscoe, IL
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Gr. 6^-12. The two Myerses--author and artist, father and son--celebrate Harlem, which they perceive both as a city and a "promise of a better life," in quite different but wonderfully complementary ways. The author views Harlem--where he grew up--as a symbol of African American aspiration; the artist shares a more concrete city composed of "colors loud enough to be heard." In a text that is as much song as poem, the author offers his impressionistic appreciation for a culture that is predominantly music-based, with its roots in "calls and songs and shouts" "first heard in the villages of Ghana/Mali/Senegal." In his hotly vibrant ink, gouache, and collage images, the artist shows us the textures of the city streets, the colors of "sun yellow shirts on burnt umber bodies," and even, it seems, the sounds the words themselves evoke. The very look of metaphorical moments is well served by the text, but it is Harlem as a visual experience that YAs will return to again and again, to admire and wonder at what is realized with truly extraordinary grace and power by this young artist of such wonderful promise. Michael Cart
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Poetry is an essential element of education in this hip hop L'il Wayne saturated musical garbage dump, where rappers verbally f-- everything in the world. So much profanity in L'il Wayne, Nicki Minaj. Teens and children from third grade on are captivated by these two hip hop stars, with all the profanity and, in the case of Nicki Minaj, self-loathing.
Educators have a responsiblity to redirect the interests of young people towards poetry and wholesome music, which there is plenty of among African American culture, and away from hip hop vulgarity. Walter Dean Myers work is one such avenue of culture heritage for African Americans, as is Langston Hughes. Harlem is a fine book for the classroom.
The book can be read as a bunch of little poems all talking about the history, magnificence, and glory of Harlem. It can also be read as a single continuing story that starts with a Great Migration from all over the world and ends on Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard. We see people up and people down. We meet and view famous characters from history. We see Harlem residents' faith, their religion, and their everyday activities. Checkers players are viewed alongside pallbearers. Kids and hot asphalt and lines like, "A journey on the A train / That started on the banks of the Niger / And has not ended". The book is a celebration of a place by a man who was born and raised there, but does not live there today. Something to chew on, I suppose.
Kids will not get this book. Not all kids. A few will understand what it's saying, and a few who have it explained to them by talented teachers, will get it as well. By and large, however, this is a book meant for teens and adults. The kinds of people who might have read "Harlem Stomp" by Laban Carrick Hill and (as a result) now understand exactly what this book is referring to. You need a little background and history in Harlem to understand "Harlem". Myers is assuming that the casual reader is familiar enough with its past to nod sagely at such lines as, "A huddle of horns and a tinkle of glass, a note / Handed down from Marcus to Malcolm to a brother / Too bad and too cool to give his name". And while I appreciate Myers' assumption that I'm that intelligent, I can't help but wonder why this book is considered children's. Just because it has bright pretty pictures? Puh-leeze.
Not that the pictures are bad. They're nice, in a cut paper/artistic kinda way. But children won't gravitate towards them. They're far more likely to prefer Collier's candybar cutouts on the already mentioned "Uptown". Still, there's no denying the mastery behind these images. "Harlem" may garner some complaints but few will be centered on the art.
All in all, this is a perfectly nice book in search of an audience. Consider it recommended for anyone looking for contemporary Harlem poetry (especially if they're over the age of 9).