Walter Dean Myers's Harlem
illustrations by Christopher Myers
Children's book review by Suzanne Edison.
Ode to the Harlem Renaissance
The beating heart of this poem-book, Harlem, this paean to the once, mostly African-American neighborhood of New York City, comes in the center of the book as Walter Dean Myers lets loose with:
“The uptown A
Rattles past 110th Street
Unreal to real
Relaxing the soul…
and dives into the rhythm of words. Songs, singers and musicians figure prominently in this book but eventually the music of poetry lifts it above prose and historical cant, moving me to smell, feel, see, experience the Harlem of the ‘20’s through the ‘60’s, where blacks came to seek a home and place free from racism.
…Caught by a full lipped, full hipped
Saint washing collard greens in a cracked
Backing up Lady Day on the radio
Brother so black and blue,
Patting a wide foot outside the too hot
“Boy, you ought to find the guy who told you
you could play some checkers ‘cause he done lied
This poem/book tries to give a full picture of the place Harlem was and the people and places made famous by writers, preachers, fighters and artists from Langston Hughes (whose own poem titled “Harlem” comes to mind) to Malcolm X, from Marcus Garvey to Joe Louis. When the poet manages to transcend the recitation of names and embed them in metaphor, images and alliteration, then the writing comes alive, as here:
“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.”
The Apollo and Cotton Clubs are mentioned, but visual artist Christopher Myers (Walter’s son and a 1998 Caldecott Honor winner) composes collage images with paper, ink and gouache that concretize, echo and accent the words and places in “colors loud enough to be heard.”
In its pasted-together, layer upon fragment, torn and seamed style, young Myers captures nuance and solid ground. I would get this book for the illustrations alone, they are that powerful and evocative. As a collage artist he is in the tradition of Romare Bearden, another famous African-American artist of the 1940’s-‘60’s not mentioned here.
In its oversized format, one might think Harlem is a book for kids. Indeed 3-5th graders will get a lot out of the pictures, though they would not necessarily know all the references and there are so many that they would need a good teacher, or parent, to help them understand the context and particulars.
Because there is so much feeling in this book, it is something a multi-age audience can well appreciate. The “weary blues”, the “promise of a better life” sung in “a new sound, raucous and sassy” cascades out of its pages.
Near the end of the poem Walter Myers writes what may be the coda of the entire book saying;
“Sometimes it is the artist looking into a mirror,
Painting a portrait of his own heart.”
Not one, but two artists have collaborated in Harlem, this larger than life place, former hotbed of intellectual, social and artistic talents and have succeeded in helping us see many facets of the place they knew and loved.
More Caldecott honorees.
Read more of Suzanne's reviews.
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