The Work, Not Just the Book

By Herbert Kohl

I read Walter Dean Myers’ latest book, Autobiography of My Dead Brother and was so taken by this tale about murder, the mean streets, and the power of music and art to sustain hope in a life full of pressure and danger that I bought copies of three other books by Myers.

I have developed the habit of reading all the works of any writer that moves me. This was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on Myers, the writer, rather than just on the book. After reading MonsterShooter, and The Beast as well as Autobiography, I realized how skillfully Myers places the human heart at the center of troubling stories and turns what could be stories about violence into tales of hope and redemption.

And the ingenuity of Myers’ narrative structure provides insight into the writer’s craft. For example, Autobiography is not just a first-person narrative, but also an artist’s notebook that turns a wrenching story of violence into a moving comic strip ready for syndication. Illustrator Christopher Myers actually draws the strip, giving the book a visual dimension that demonstrates the artistic sensibility of the narrator.

Myers wrote Monster in the form of a film screenplay as played out in the mind of a young man while he’s on trial for murder. It also includes his diary. In Shooter, Myers tells the tale through a series of police and psychologists’ documents as well as student journals and newspaper clippings. In The Beast, the narrative is more conventional, a first-person tale told as it is unfolding.

In all four books, Myers’ central figure is a young African-American male, but his skill is so finely tuned and his writing so engaging that I felt that any of them could have been me. That, of course, is part of the magic of good fiction.

As a teacher I love to expose my students to the works of exceptional authors. In most literature classes, I try to expose students to as many different writers as possible. I prefer to expose them to fewer writers in greater depth. When I taught Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, I also taught his “Modest Proposal” and a few of his other essays. As for Shakespeare, one play is not enough to grasp the complexity and genius of the work.

I highly recommend Autobiography of My Dead Brother, and I find the thought of introducing students to the notion of a writer’s oeuvre — her or his body of work — through the reading of three of four books intriguing and intend to do it sometime during this school year.

Autobiography of My Dead Brother
By Walter Dean Myers
(Harper Tempest, 2005)
224 pp. $16.89 Hardback

The Beast
By Walter Dean Myers
(Scholastic, 2003)
176 pp. $7.99

By Walter Dean Myers
(Harper Tempest, 2004)
288 pp. $6.99

By Walter Dean Myers
(Harper Tempest, 2005)
256 pp. $6.99