Sunday, April 20, 2014

"Harlem"


So here I am.  This is it, the last blog post I have to write for my children’s literature class.  I have a feeling there will be a short hiatus after this last blog, but I do hope I come back to reviewing books.  Sometimes, the books in this world are just too good not to share with other people.  This last book is a poetry book.  No, it is not a collection of poetry, but simply one poem that spans across an entire picture book.  I wish I could say that I saved my favorite for the last, but unfortunately, this book is one of the ones that has resonated with me least.

           
Harlem (Published 1997) by Walter Dean Myers and Illustrated by his son Christopher Myers, is, as the title indicates, a book about Harlem.  It is not really a narrative in the sense of it having a beginning, middle and end, nor is there any real problem presented in the book.  The poem starts with a page where “They” are traveling to Harlem because “Harlem was a promise of a better life, of a place where a man didn’t have to know his place Simply because he was Black.”  The poem then goes on to explain that they brought their sounds with them to this new place.  After this opening, however, I feel like the poem digresses into something a little more confusing, where there isn’t a connected storyline.  It goes from talking about the Abyssinian Baptist Church and the Apollo theater on one page, to talking about a train station on the next.  I think that Walter Dean Myers explains this confusion when he says towards the end, “Place, Sound, Celebration, Memories of feelings, of place.”  I feel that this accurately explains the poem.  The poem is not so much a story, but lines that celebrate those places, sounds, and feelings that the author remembers of his own childhood in Harlem.  For that end goal, I think the structure of the text works.  I should mentioned that this seems to be the Harlem from a few decades ago, the one in which Walter Dean Myers grew up.  The talk of jazz and hints of segregation and racism lead me to this belief.

            I think that this is a good poem.  I really like the way that Walter Dean Myers used backslashes between sets of nouns, like when he says “Yellow/tan/brown/black/red/Green/gray/bright colors loud enough to be heard.”  These backslashes serve to give the poem a sense of motion and of lots of things happening all at once.  I have never seen this technique before.  Aside from the backslashes, my next favorite thing he does is his use of nouns.  The poem is full of different nouns in the stanzas that paint the picture for the reader.  In one opening, it says,
            A carnival of children
            People the daytime streets
            Ring-a-levio warriors
            Stickball heroes
            Hide-and-seek knights and ladies
            Waiting to sing their own sweet songs.
I think this achieves the same thing that the backslashes achieves—a sense of a lot of motion and action going on in the story.  Harlem is a vibrant, thriving place and the poem conveys that.

             The illustrations in this story are also quiet nice.  This book was actually a Caldecott Honor in 1998.  They are collage with ink, and gauche.  Bryan Collier also does collages, but he uses watercolor.  Christopher Myers use of gauche makes the illustrations more opaque than Bryan Collier’s.  I had honestly never seen anyone else use this kind of illustrative style in a picture book.  Because I have read and loved so many of Bryan Collier’s work, I am sort of partial to his style.  Christopher Myers is not focused on detail as much as he is the use of bright hues to create the picture of a vibrant city that his father was able to do in the poem.   Christopher Myers’s illustrations are wonderful, but they feel almost clumsy when they are compared to the work of Bryan Collier.
Christopher Myer's illustrative work in Harlem.
            So far, I have given a lot of reasoning as to why this book is a good book.  In my opening, however, I mentioned how it didn’t really resonate with me.  Overall, this book just wasn’t a book I really enjoyed because it didn’t have any connection to me or my life.  When Walter Dean Myers talks about “Shango and Jesus, Asante and Mede,” or “The uptown A rattles past 110th Street,” it doesn’t strike a chord with me at all.  When he says “A weary blues that Langston knew and Countee sung a river of blues where Du Bois waded and Baldwin preached,” I really only know about Langston Hughes.  This simply isn’t a book that has any relevance to my life.  When I think of Harlem, the only thing I remember is hearing about the Harlem Renaissance in high school and knowing that it was an epicenter of African American culture.  I don’t feel like I learned any new information, and am just left with a bunch of questions that I have to go look up.  Of course, asking questions is a great thing in a book, but I just didn’t connect with it enough to even want to go look up questions.

            I am trying to think for whom I would recommend this book.  I think for children growing up in and around Harlem, this book is an obvious choice.  Also, for children with grandparents who grew up in that time period, like Walter Dean Myers, this would be a way for them to connect with their grandchildren and share their lives.  I can also see this book working in a class that teaches about the Harlem Renaissance.  Indeed, the Booklist Review of this book says, ‘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.”  Despite Amazon advertising it as a book for fourth grade and up, Booklist has said that it is recommended for children in 6-12 grade.  I have to agree.  I think that this book would provide a nice supplement to a teacher’s curriculum who is teaching about that culture and time period.


            Normally, my reviews are much longer than this, but I won’t try to force a review when I have nothing more to say.  Overall, I think that the book has strong literary merit and that it has very nice illustrations.  For me, however, it will not become a beloved text that I share with my students year after year.  From here on out, I will probably only be blogging about books I really love or really hate—after all, I’m a girl motivated by emotions!
Image Sources:
www.goodreads.com
www.best-childrens-books.com
 

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