Sunday, July 6, 2014

On Walter Dean Meyers

African American author Walter Dean Myers died this week. While I can’t say I’ve read everything he wrote, I can say I liked what I read. My favorite Myers novel is Monster, a book that can be viewed as a response to (or a “signifying” of) Native Son, a much earlier work by Richard Wright. Monster is the story of Steve Harmon, an African American sixteen year old who is on trial for murder. Steve is accused of being the lookout for a botched robbery during which the storeowner was killed. Steve, who was a member of the film club at his high school, narrates his story in the form of an imaginary film he is producing. In his film he describes the despair of prison life and the anxiety of facing trial. Although Steve fears that others now view him as a monster, Meyers depicts him as a complicated person who is capable of sustaining warm family relationships, and of expressing his identity with a wide range of human emotions. “I’m just not a bad person,” Steve tells himself. “I know that in my heart I am not a bad person” (93). While Myers’ ending is ambiguous (spoiler ahead) –we never do find out for sure if Steve committed the crime – in a sense, it doesn’t matter. Myers’ point is that guilty or innocent, Steve remains a person, a human being who, even if involved in this crime, is not a monster.
This is the stuff of childhood studies, an academic field that examines how people tend to conceptualize childhood. Childhood is often idealized as a time of innocence and vulnerability, but kids do bad things sometimes. If children are innocent, when they commit crimes do they stop being children? And how does race impact this view of childhood? In Monster, Meyers makes us face these and other uncomfortable questions. So, in the midst of my steady summer diet of dystopian YA fiction, it’s good to remember an author like Walter Dean Meyers, whose classy writing never included the phrase, “the smile didn’t reach his eyes,” and who understood the power of fiction to make us think.

1 comment:

  1. sounds like it would be a great book to read; I have to add it to my list!