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True confession–I’m one of those people, the kind who still receives a newspaper (The Oregonian, tossed onto my driveway, four days a week now instead of seven) and reads my magazines, after removing all the subscription cards, by holding them in my hands. Nearby, I keep scissors to cut out articles that interest me or might be interesting to a friend or my son, away at college. My good friend Barry, a retired professor of English is the master of clipping and sending (real mail delivered by the USPS) articles for me to read. Recently, I was sorting through a stack of clippings, some from Barry and some of my own, when I came across two articles I had been meaning to reread and perhaps even write about. The articles, from two different sources, were about the death on July 1, 2014, of author Walter Dean Myers. If his name doesn’t ring any bells inside your head, then I will have to ring them for you. (Visit http://www.walterdeanmyers.net for a brief but informative biography, complete bibliography, extensive award resume, and a video interview with Mr. Myers.)

Though Walter Dean Myers wrote over 100 books—picture books, novels, non-fiction—for young people, I want to focus on two, chosen because of the impact they had on me as a teacher and on my students as readers. I’ve always referred to books like these as gateway books—books that lead students to more books, to become readers of books (often for the first time), and often guide students to a greater understanding of and appreciation for the act of writing. The gateway experience is not limited to reading and writing revelations. The encounters readers have with certain characters or subject matter found in these books may assist students with personal issues in ways that the people in their lives aren’t able to offer.

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In Bad Boy: a memoir, Mr. Myers shares his own reading history, beginning with his mother, who struggled to read, following along as she pointed to and read each word of the romance novels she loved. This was just the start. “I found, stumbled upon, was led to, or was given great literature. Reading this literature, these books, led me to the canvas of my own humanity…My reading ability led me to books, which led me to ideas, which led to more books and more ideas. The slow dance through the ideas led to writing.” (Page 200) His efforts to write were another “slow dance,” set to the tune of piles of rejection slips for his poems, short stories, and articles.

His lack of initial publishing success may have been less about his ability as a writer and more to do with what he was writing about. Thankfully, amidst all those rejection notices, Mr. Myers had his own gateway experience. “A turning point in my writing was the discovery of a short story by James Baldwin, ‘Sonny’s Blues.’ It was a beautifully written story, but more important, it was a story about the black urban experience. Baldwin, in writing and publishing that story, gave me permission to write about my own experiences. I was playing a lot of ball at the time, and my next story, about basketball, was accepted the first time I sent it out.” (Page 201) In an opinion piece titled “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” appearing in the New York Times only months before his death, Mr. Meyers again explained the impact of Baldwin’s short story on the direction of his writing. “By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map…Today I am a writer, but I also see myself as something of a landscape artist. I paint pictures of scenes for inner-city youth that are familiar, and I people the scenes with brothers and aunts and friends they have all met.” (New York Times, March 15, 2014) In STG terms, I would say that Mr. Myers had found his writer’s voice. By writing honestly about his own landscape—growing up in poverty, struggling to find his identity as a young black man dealing with trouble at home and school, literally fighting for survival on neighborhood streets—he helped young people growing up in similar landscapes by giving them characters they could relate to and identify with. His books became gateways for young people, not just to further reading experiences but to opportunities for self-discovery, personal growth, day-to-day survival, and for hope of a brighter future.

 In the Classroom

As a middle school teacher, I felt it was important to know as much as I could about the books my students were reading, would be reading, or might be interested in reading. I wanted to make sure I could be a part of their book conversations or, more importantly, be the start of their book conversations. John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, wrote, in a short tribute about Mr. Myers in the July 14, 2014 issue of Time, that his books explored “…the lives of African-American kids, who too often do not see themselves presented honestly and compassionately in literature.” I wanted to know about books like these so I could put them in the hands of my reluctant and non-readers, students who most needed that gateway experience to launch them into their own “slow dance” through books, ideas, writing, and self-discovery.

As a teacher, I believe that you need to know lots of gateway books (you have to have read them first) and you need to know your students well. Your relationship with the books and your relationship with your students will help you make relevant recommendations.

Here are two books by Walter Dean Myers that, once I discovered and read them, I offered to countless students (and teachers) with great success. I’m not going to say much about them other than I can’t recommend them enough. Dig in for yourself, discover the legacy of an important author, and most importantly, pass it on.

 

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Fallen Angels. 2008. Walter Dean Myers. New York: Scholastic.

(This is the 2008 Special Anniversary Edition from Scholastic Paperbacks. The book was originally published in 1988 and won the 1989 Coretta Scott King Award.)

Genre: Novel—Vietnam War, coming of age story focusing on Richie Perry, a young man from Harlem who joins the army when he is not able to attend college.

Grade Levels: 7 and up

336 pages

Warning #1: This book does contain (appropriately) strong language. After all, the expression is not, “War is heck.” I believe it’s one of the reasons this book appeals to some students—not simply because it contains cursing, but because it’s true to the characters and the action.

Warning #2: It’s too easy to label this book as being a “book for boys,” a “war story,“ or a book about the “black experience.” The real characters and action in Fallen Angels speak to all kinds of readers for all kinds of reasons.

 

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Monster.1999. Walter Dean Myers. Harper Collins: New York.

(Winner of the 1999 Michael L. Printz Award, nominated for Coretta Scott King Award, Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Novel, National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.)

Genre: Novel—written in screenplay/journal format. An aspiring filmmaker, 16-year-old Steve Harmon is on trial for being an accomplice to murder in an armed robbery that went bad.

Grade Levels: 7 and up

281 pages

Other Gateway Recommendations

Here are a few other gateway books, from a variety of authors—labeled as such because of the impact I have seen them have on student readers and writers.

(How about sharing some of your own gateway book titles? Send them to me in a comment, and I’ll pass them along to all STG readers.)

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. 2007. Little, Brown and Company: New York.

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 7 and up

230 pages

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Speak.1999. Laurie Halse Anderson. Farrar Straus Giroux: New York.

(Nominated for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.)

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 7 and up

221 pages

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Hatchet.1988. Gary Paulsen. Puffin Books: New York.

(Newberry Honor Book)

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 7 and up

195 pages

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The House on Mango Street.1984. Sandra Cisneros. Vintage Contemporaries: New York.

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 6 and up

110 pages

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. 2012. Benjamin Alire Saenz. Simon & Schuster BFYR: New York.

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 9 and up

359 pages

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Freak the Mighty.1993. Rodman Philbrick. Blue Sky Press: New York.

Genre: Novel

Grade Levels: 6 and up

169 pages

 Coming up on Gurus . . .

I will be sharing some favorites from my summer reading, and it was a great summer for books.  I’ve been spending part of my Wednesdays down the street at our neighborhood elementary school. If all goes well, I will share some of my recent experiences with Mr. S’s wonderful fifth graders.

Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.

Resources

Looking for writing lessons?
These resources were designed with YOU, the classroom teacher, in mind:

The Write Traits Classroom Kits ©2010 by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These NEW edition kits are closely aligned with the Common Core Standards, and feature ready-to-go lessons that will make teaching conventions & presentation a breeze. Students love these lessons—you will, too. The kits are available for grades K through 8. To order or preview copies, please go to the following web address:

http://www.hmheducation.com/write-traits/. Here you can preview the kits (through 13 videos featuring Jeff and Vicki), download a comprehensive brochure, download articles on assessment, writing process or the Common Core, or order grade specific kits (Just go to the Home page, and click on the red order button.) Note: For the closest connection to the Common Core, be sure that your search takes you to the NEW Houghton Mifflin Harcourt home page for the kits, featuring our revised, Common Core aligned 2010 edition.

Creating Writers, 6th edition, by Vicki Spandel. This newly released edition will help you teach conventions with confidence and flair. It includes numerous lesson ideas, recommended handbooks, and other resources to help you bring conventions and presentation to life in your classroom. Connections to the Common Core Standards included. Find it at http://www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e

 

 

 

 

 

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