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Bad BoyReview - Bad Boy
A Memoir
by Walter Dean Myers
Harpercollins Juvenile, 2001
Review by Liz Bass
Feb 27th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 9)

Bad Boy is a memoir written by prize-winning author Walter Dean Myers about growing up in Harlem during the 1940's.  Raised by a family that informally adopted him after his mother died, Myers treats us to stunning images of street life at the time, including this one:  “It became common to hear loudspeakers in the music stores fill the area with the sounds of jazz and to see the strollers adjust their rhythms to the beat set down by Count Basie or even some gospel group.” 

The central figure in Myers’ youth was a white woman he called “Mama.”  She was married to his black adoptive father, Herbert Dean.  It is Myers’ treatment of Mama and her treatment of him that compels the reader to stay with this story, which ends when Myers leaves home to join the Army.  There is a brief epilogue, but it does not give closure to questions about his relationship with Mama.  The reader comes away from the story wondering how Myers and his Mama could have had so many good times together, yet treated each other so badly.

For example, one day Myers injured his legs after falling off the back of a taxi on which he was hitching a ride.  Bruised and bloodied, he made his way home and stayed in his room until supper.  When he father finally asked him what was wrong with his legs, his answer was, “Mama beat me with a stick.”  He writes that he “told God” he was sorry for the lie, but he didn’t tell Mama the same thing.  He just let her take Herbert Dean’s abuse.  At another point in the story, Myers decides to save money for a typewriter so he can work on becoming a writer.  He gives Mama five dollars a week to hold for him until he saves enough to buy one.  But Mama uses his money to gamble on numbers and loses it all.  By that time, Myers writes, “Mama was drinking heavily.  I was filled with bitterness of not having the typewriter I worked so hard for.”

At school, Myers was the target of ridicule because of a speech problem.  He fought his tormenters by hitting, slapping, and throwing books.  Myers became one of those “fat file” kids who saw schoolrooms as war zones.  As he grew older, Myers only went to school occasionally, preferring to be out in the city looking for places where he could read all day undisturbed.  He sat in trees, on piers, and in libraries.  He would forge his Mama’s name on excuse notes until the school got wise to him, and then there would be the inevitable confrontation with the school people followed by another one on the home front.  He finally dropped out.

Myers began to write poetry at an early age, and received positive recognition for his work.  After he left home, he was able to shed his bad boy persona, and eventually find his way into the writing world where he made a name for himself as an author of children’s books.

Bad Boy is a book about a successful person, but it fails to inspire.  Myers peppers the story with many confessions of wrongdoing, but omits remorse.  His message seems to be this is what I did and you can take it or leave it.  Held at arm’s length, the reader is unable to empathize with Myers, or even be on his side.  He describes himself at times as an aggressor and at other times as a victim, leading one to believe that he was unable to decide which of the two was a better fit.       

Early in the book, Myers writes: “The greatest time I ever spent in my life was when she was home.”  One cannot help but wonder how Mama moved from that center stage position in his early life to her later dissolution.  It is equally unclear how he moved from such a touching expression of his love for her to the feelings of bitterness and detachment that ultimately propelled him out the door.

That’s the untold story in Bad Boy.

 

© 2002 Liz Bass

 

Liz Bass was a teacher and principal for twenty-three years at a school for bad boys (and girls) in Northern California.  She is now retired.        


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