Handbook for Boys by Walter Dean Myers

handbook for boysReading level: 4.8
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle and high school

Goodreads summary:

Jimmy and Kevin could really use a guide to life.

Their activities almost land them in juvenile detention until Duke employs them in his Harlem barbershop. Duke has rules for everything. But is he offering good advice or just more aggravation?

Handbook for Boys is definitely low on my list of books I’ve enjoyed recently. I appreciate the lessons that he book teaches (such as taking ownership of your life decisions), but the way it was communicated was rather uninteresting to me. The premise is that our narrator Jimmy works in a barber shop because he got into some trouble and is avoiding juvi by helping out the community. The owner Duke and his buddies then make an example out of the folks who have screwed up their lives when they tell their story in the barber shop. It’s a very unsubtle way of saying HERE’S THE MORAL OF THE STORY.

I also didn’t find the book very engaging because nothing really happens (until the very end), although I did like meeting the different people who came into the barber shop. But it’s also very real – Duke talks about real issues that affect real people. It’s not sugar coated, which I think kids like Jimmy (i.e. kids who have gotten into trouble) can appreciate and relate to.

There’s one chapter called “S-E-X.” I remember picking up this book at a library book sale and seeing that chapter and almost giving up on the book because I thought it would be inappropriate. That chapter is about a guy who fathers several children with different women and then doesn’t worry about taking responsibility for the kids or their moms. It’s really nothing graphic or inappropriate.

The chapter I did find weird was the one about Jimmy’s aunt (?) harping on him for not devoting himself to God. Nothing seems to be learned from this encounter and it seems completely out of the blue. If parents have an issue with any part of this book, it might be from a parent who isn’t comfortable with his or her child reading this chapter that is so pro-religion. Jimmy doesn’t really buy into what his aunt says, though, so it’s not likely to make kids realize they need to be super religious.

Middle schoolers, especially boys (seeing as there are 3-4 women in this book tops, and they’re all minor characters) might enjoy this book if they can get into it, but I think that high schoolers will have an easier time really getting something out of it. The language is fairly simple, lacks big words, and has only occasional colloquialisms, so it’s ELL-friendly. I’m guessing that the book cover might catch the eye of young, male readers, but I’ll be impressed if they stick with and enjoy this book. I hope to be surprised.


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