Myers, W. (2007). Harlem summer. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.
Plot Summary: Mark starts a summer job with The Crisis a newspaper written by and for “The New Negro” he isn’t sure if he is part of this group and doesn’t really care he just wants to play his saxophone. He gets asked to do an odd job with the great Jazz musician Fats Waller and thinks this is the perfect opportunity to ask Fats to play with his band sometime. However, it turns out they loaded a truck full of illegal booze and after they left the truck goes missing. Mark now has gangsters threatening his life and he has to find a way to pay for the liquor or he and his friends are dead. In a comedy of errors he tries to earn enough money to pay off the gangsters but finds himself drawn deeper into a life of crime. By the time the missing booze shows up he is now its owner and finds himself in jail soon after. Luckily for Mark, Fats Waller uses his connections in the police department to get Mark freed. The book ends with Mark a free man committed to staying out of trouble despite his reputation as a crime lord.
Critical Evaluation: This book does a great job of adding real historical people and places to the book. This includes a wide variety of historical figures from the writers and activists at The Crisis, to the musicians and celebrities Mark meets, and even the famous gangsters of the day. Walter Dean Myers does a great job of integrating these characters into the story in a way that seems natural and fits with the plot line. These famous people are not just named dropped or randomly injected into the story they all play an important part in forwarding the story. The book also includes a glossary of the real people and places included in the book so readers can see what exactly was fact or fiction and learn more about the history in the book. The overall tone of the book also fits the time period very well. The way the story is written you really get a sense of the change going on at the time, the hustle and bustle of living in the city, and the sense of community in neighborhood.
Reader’s Annotation: When Marks is asked to work an odd job with Fats Waller he thinks he has found the perfect opportunity to play with a Jazz legend, but when things go wrong his life changes forever.
Author Information: Walter Dean Myers is a well known author of books for children and young adults many of which focus on Black History. He has also won several awards for his writing including two Newberry Honors, five Corretta Scott King Awards, the Michael J. Printz Award, and the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults. He was born in West Virginia but grew up in Harlem and his writing is often inspired by events in his own life.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Curriculum Ties: This book features a lot of information on Harlem in the era including a glossary of real people and places mentioned in the book making it an interesting tie in when looking at that period of history.
Booktalk Ideas: 1) What would you have done when you found out about the missing liquor?
2) Is Fats Waller meant to be a “good guy” or a “bad guy” in the story?
Reading Level & Interest Level: Barnes and Noble lists the reading level as ages 12-17 while walterdeanmyers.net lists it as 9-14. I think that the Barnes and Noble reading level is more accurate it is a fairly short book but has some vocabulary that i think readers under twelve may find a bit too challenging. I also think that due to the age of the main character Mark this book will be more relate-able and interesting to teens rather than middle grade readers.
Challenge Issues: The book depicts crime and has some violent threats however it is necessary to demonstrate how much trouble Mark has gotten himself into and while it is central to the plot it is not the main point of the book. While this particular book has not won any awards Walter Dean Myers had written many award winning books.
Why is it included?: Walter Dean Myers is a great author and I knew I wanted to include at least one of his titles in this reading list. I really like that his historical fiction has more appeal to male readers, it seems that historical fiction gets a reputation for being girly or that the only non-girly historical fiction is about war and this book and much of Myers work counteracts this. His work is also great for adding diversity to a collection and showing a part of history some readers may not be as familiar with.