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.

It Ain’t All For Nothin’ by Walter Dean Myers

ain't all for nothin'Reading level: 5.4
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Seventeen-year-old Samar — a.k.a. Sam — has never known much about her Indian heritage. Her mom has deliberately kept Sam away from her old-fashioned family. It’s never bothered Sam, who is busy with school, friends, and a really cute but demanding boyfriend.But things change after 9/11. A guy in a turban shows up at Sam’s house, and he turns out to be her uncle. He wants to reconcile the family and teach Sam about her Sikh heritage. Sam isn’t sure what to do, until a girl at school calls her a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside. That decides it: Why shouldn’t Sam get to know her family? What is her mom so afraid of? Then some boys attack her uncle, shouting, “Go back home, Osama ” and Sam realizes she could be in danger — and also discovers how dangerous ignorance can be. Sam will need all her smarts and savvy to try to bridge two worlds and make them both her own.

My copy of It Ain’t All For Nothin’ has had a rough life. It lived in the library of a local high school and was “discarded,” the library bar code cut out of the front cover. The public library either tried to sell it at a book sale or deemed it unfit to sell, and so it wound up in a free book pile along with computer manuals for Windows 95 and outdated self-help books.

There’s probably a reason it’s been discarded again and again. The cover screams “dorky, boring, please don’t read me.” In fact, I couldn’t even find a picture on the internet of the cover that I own, printed in the late 1970s. Here are some ideas to help get this book (and other books with boring covers) in the hands of readers:

  • Give a book talk summarizing why students might like it.
  • Display it on the bookshelf under a sign or banner that says “Ugly book cover of the month” and has a blurb about why it’s not a boring book.
  • Create monthly book challenges for SSR/at-home reading assignments. Challenges may include:
    • Read a book with a dorky cover
    • Read a book featuring a main character of the opposite gender
    • Read a book in a genre different from what you’re used to

At the time I read this book, I was also reading Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit. She writes that African Americans tend to not tell object-centered stories like White people do. That is, their stories seem to go on and on without a central focus – at least that’s what I understood. It’s just a different way to telling stories and communicating. It Ain’t All For Nothin’ definitely had that feel, not just from sentence structure (some sentences were very long, connected by several conjunctions) but also because it was about Tippy’s 12-year old life, day by day, moment to moment. It’s hard to explain.

I say it’s not ELL-friendly because it’s written in the African American vernacular, aka Black English. Because we’re trying to teach ELLs “formal English,” this book might just be confusing. For African American youth, though, it might be liberating to read a book written in the language in which they speak.

I think this book is better suited for middle schoolers because the main character is 12, the reading level is 5th grade, and the language is fairly simple. However, since the book was originally in a high school library, it could be appropriate for that age group as well, especially for struggling readers. It would also make an excellent mentor text to show Tippy’s internal monologue that really defines this scared 12-year-old boy. It could be used in a lesson about narration, internal monologue, and giving characters distinct voices by using a variety of sentence structures.

There are lots of reasons why this book may not be appropriate for school:

  • references to “herb” i.e. marijuana
  • praying and references to Jesus
  • kids and adults drinking alcohol
  • kids doing illegal things (stealing, buying alcohol)
  • mild swearing

Allow me to refute these “problems.”

The praying comes from Grandma Carrie, a fiercely religious woman. Praying and talking to Jesus is something that defines her, and Tippy struggles to pray in a way that is meaningful to him. Religion isn’t prominent or stressed.

If all books with any swearing were banned from schools, there would be no more school libraries. Really, the swearing isn’t that bad.

Tippy never smokes marijuana and never says anything positive about it. It’s just what Lonnie and his friends do.

Tippy struggles to do what’s right regarding stealing and partaking in illegal activities with his father. By the end, he’s on the straight and narrow. He may not have his life figured out, but he knows he’s no thief. Each time he helps his father steal, something terrible happens and it terrifies him. The lesson: don’t steal.

He really drinks a lot of alcohol, and his father basically lets him except for once. Almost each time Tippy drinks, he gets sick. Once, he passed out in the street. He mentions that he never wanted to be like one of those drunkards passed out in the streets like he was…at age 12. Drinking just sounds like a terrible experience for him every time, so it is definitely not glorified.

Here are some quotes to prove that the book isn’t in favor of kids doing illicit activities:

Mr. Roland: “‘People don’t do things to hurt themselves unless they got problems. And that drinking ain’t doing nothing but hurting you'” (108).

Tippy: “It was good doing things that everybody else was doing if it was a right thing to do. That was because you had fun doing it and because you was a part of the world you always heard about or maybe saw on television” (112).

Tippy: “I never liked people who stole things, not even because of God and the Bible saying it was wrong – I just didn’t think it was the right way to live. I didn’t like people who lived like that, and now I didn’t like me very much either” (182).