Walter Dean Myers - Published 1988

Walter Dean Myers was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia, August 12, 1937. When he was two years old, his mother died in childbirth. This left his father with eight children to care for, so he arranged for Florence and Herbert Dean of Harlem to take Walter. Living with the Deans meant that he would be well cared for, while Harlem provided him with rich resources of cultural experience and education.

His severe speech handicap caused him frustration, anger, and embarrassment, especially when he was required to read aloud at school. While working through this problem in speech therapy, he began to write what he wanted to say. This was the beginning of his love for writing. After reading the works of the most noted European writers and trying to imitate their style, he read works by black writers Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, which helped him to write about his own culture and experience.

In 1954 he quit high school and joined the army for three years. Later he attended City College of the City University of New York. He has worked as employment supervisor for the New York State Department of Labor and has worked for a transformer company, the post office, and a rehabilitation center. His first writing was for the National Inquirer and adventure magazines, but his career in children's books began when he entered a short story contest run by the Council on Interracial Books for Children and won five hundred dollars. From 1970 to 1977 he worked as an editor for the Bobbs-Merrill Company.

His ideas come from his own experience, from young people around the country, and from news headlines. For example, the death of his brother in Vietnam led to his writing Fallen Angels. He sends ideas for books to the publisher and, if approved, he outlines the novel and then begins the writing. When he goes to schools, he shows students the various stages of his books so that they can see the importance of revision. He says that students have been able to tell him things about himself that he had not realized before.

He and his wife, Connie, have three children—Karen, Michael Dean, and Christopher. Karen is married and has three children, and Dean is in the army.

The Young Landlords, Motown and Didi, Fallen Angels, and Now Is Your Time! have all won Coretta Scott King Awards. The Young Landlords and Now Is Your Time were named American Library Association Notable Books. Now Is Your Time! was included in the ALA 'Best' list for 1992. Scorpions was selected as a Newbery Honor book (1989).


It is important for every ethnic group to have understanding and empathy for members of other groups whose backgrounds and living conditions are different from their own. Reading allows students to walk vicariously for a short time in the shoes of others, to feel what they feel, and to empathize with their problems.

Scorpions deals with the friendship and loyalty of two twelve-year-old boys, one black and one Puerto Rican. Neither lives with his father. Jamal lives with his mother and sister, and Tito lives with his grandmother in an inner-city neighborhood filled with violence, gangs, poverty, and drugs. These two boys have more than friendship; they have a brotherhood, and the book illustrates how love can cross racial barriers. The story provides a compassionate, fast-paced account of how two boys are drawn into gang violence. The characters are so well portrayed that readers will understand the anguish of Jamal's mother as she sees her older son imprisoned for murder and of Tito's grandmother as she lives through her grandson's tragedy.

Myers does not preach to readers about joining gangs, running drugs, using drugs and alcohol, and carrying guns, but the story is told so well that readers see the dangers for themselves.


The story is set in Harlem in the midst of drug runners and winos. Much of the action takes place in the family apartment—the place where Jamal's older brother Randy was arrested by the police, where the family lives with the barest necessities, where Sassy and Jamal bicker, and where their father comes on rare occasions and lowers Jamal's self esteem. In contrast, the apartment where Tito and his grandmother live is a safe haven, a place of warmth, love, and good food.

Jamal has to deal with a bully every day at school where the teachers are insensitive, arrogant, and derogatory. The storeroom of the school is the scene of Jamal's confrontation with Dwayne. It is here that Jamal realizes the power of the gun to equalize the odds.

Part of the conflict takes place in a crack house where the Scorpions vie for leadership of the gang, and Jamal takes over because of the gun in his belt. There is also a park where drug addicts and winos lie around. High on drugs, Indian and Angel try to kill Jamal with a switchblade there, and Tito's life is changed forever when he shoots two of the Scorpions.

The place of dreams for the future is the boat dock. The boys go there to admire the yachts and to think of growing up, owning, racing, and sailing them to Puerto Rico. It is a place to get away from the problems of their own neighborhood and a place to think.


A major theme is friendship and loyalty, but the book also deals with making decisions. Gangs, guns, drugs, drug running, and violence are shown in such a way that readers see that they are decisions that lead only to tragedy.

Jamal's family consists of an absentee father whose occasional visits result in demands and threats against him, a religious, hard-working mother who is consumed with grief over her son's involvement in robbery and murder, and Randy who was the leader of the Scorpions until his implication in the murder. He is stabbed and almost killed in prison. Sassy, Jamal's younger sister, picks at him, argues, and tries to get him in trouble, but she shows how much she cares for him as life becomes more desperate.

Tito wears Jamal's clothes because it makes him feel closer to Jamal, his friend. He asks Jamal not to fight the bully, not to join the Scorpions, and not to keep the gun. They can talk together about anything, and Tito would do anything for Jamal. Eventually he ruins his own life in order to save his friend.

Mack, a wino, is mentally deficient. He cannot take over the Scorpions himself because of his age and condition, but he gives Jamal the gun and pushes him to assume the leadership of the gang even though he is only twelve and not even a member. Indian and Angel are drug runners and users who are bigger, older, and very dangerous.

As Jamal goes from one danger to the next, his father nags at him to be strong and act more like a man. Even though Jamal uses a gun to face down the tough older Scorpions, he is very frightened.

He wonders whether there will ever be a time when he will not have to worry about being beaten up. The author's compassion for the characters is evident throughout. After the shooting, Tito is never the same and he becomes physically ill. 'It was as if he had been wounded in a place that Jamal couldn't see, although he knew the wound was there.' Mama thinks back to the time when Randy was a baby and a white woman came up and smiled at him 'that was the best feeling in the world. You got a baby and you hope so much for it.' Jamal hopes that his brother never gets out of prison and comes home because he is always making his mother cry. He does not want either his brother or his father back because they both cause his mama so much sadness. 'They were both gone and each of them had taken a little piece of Mama with them that they couldn't bring back.' Mama tries to get the money for Randy's appeal together because 'you can die in them jails just from having a broken spirit.'

Myers uses this story to show how institutions in the ghetto work. The one institution, the school, that should be a help for Jamal is another source of his feeling of inadequacy and despair. The one thing that Jamal is good at is drawing, but when stage scenery has to be painted, Jamal is relegated to adjusting the windows. Myers uses incidents like this and the dialogue of teachers and the principal to show that school is a cold, uncaring place. When Jamal is late, the principal makes him sit a long time before talking to him. Without giving him a chance to explain, the principal starts a harangue which includes, 'Look at me when I talk to you, young man.' Tears come to Jamal's eyes when Mr. Davidson says, 'I would ask you to bring your mother to school, but she probably doesn't care any more about your education than you do.' When he does not have his homework, Mrs. Rich says, 'I'm sure you like the seventh grade enough to spend another year in it.' When he and another boy are sent to the principal's office, Mr. Davidson says, 'Why are you associating with somebody like Hicks? . . . if you continue to find people like Jamal Hicks for your friends, you're going to be in trouble if you like it or not.' He tells Jamal that he is not going to give him a warning because he is just waiting for him to do something that is bad enough for him to be thrown out of the school. Whenever Jamal does something right at school, nobody notices.

Sometimes Myers shows how stereotyping limits someone's chances to succeed. When Sassy wants to get a job, Jamal says, 'It take a man to get a job.' When Sassy wants her father to say that Jamal should do the dishes, he says, 'That ain't no man's job.' The wino voices black prejudice against Puerto Ricans. 'All them Puerto Ricans do is drink that tequila and get crazy. . . . That's what makes them so oldlooking. You see baby Puerto Ricans and old Puerto Ricans, that's all you see. You don't see no regular Puerto Ricans. . . . And if you get into a fight with a Puerto Rican, you got to look out in case he got a knife.”

Myers brings religion into the story. Mama prays and even has the preacher come to the house to pray for Randy. When he sees that prayer does not help, Jamal gets mad at God, but his mama says that he should not be mad at God because 'God didn't shoot nobody.' After the shooting Tito is not concerned with the death or injury; he knows only that God is going to punish him and that he is going to hell. He asks Jamal to pray for him.

Jamal and Tito live in the real world where money is scarce, but they have wishes and dreams that come into the story every once in a while. Jamal wishes he could surprise his mother with a VCR. He keeps a wish list in the back of his notebook. Jamal daydreams that a rich lady will give him and Tito a hundred dollars apiece or that she has a lawyer husband who will take Randy's case. The two boys go to the boat place and plan which ones they will buy when they grow up and have money. With a boat they can sail to Puerto Rico where it is warm and Tito will not have asthma. After the school gun problem, Jamal goes to the boat dock. He thinks that he may have to run away from home, but he imagines coming back grown up, dressed up, and successful. He imagines buying a big car, driving it to the penitentiary, and having Randy look out the window and see him in the driver's seat.


The action and development of character are mostly achieved through what people say and how they say it. Dialogue is all in what is commonly called black or variant English with some street words, but there is not much profanity considering the kind of people Indian, Angel, and Mack are. A few off-color words are used in order to make the book realistic.

There is sometimes 'jive talk,' such as: '. . . he came loudmouthing me in front of everybody;' 'I got the heat karate can't beat. Miss three five seven and a ticket to heaven;' 'So what you soupin' up to him for?' 'Girl, if I take my shoe off, you going to wish you had your hind parts in your room!;' 'I ain't gonna punk out.' Whenever Myers uses idioms that might not be easily understood, he gives enough other information so that readers will understand the phrases. For instance, when Mack brags about having done the shooting, somebody 'dropped a dime on him,' and the police pick him up. Readers know what happened, but they may not know that the saying comes from the time when it cost a dime to use a pay phone to call and turn him in. When the wino says that he could really hoop, he means that he used to be a good basketball player.

There is some poetic language and symbolism in the book. For instance, there are pigeons on the window ledge and more across the street 'their gray bodies looking like stones on the edge of the roof.' Other examples are: Jamal's words 'had lain in the bottom of his stomach like rocks weighing his whole life down;' 'It was almost a memory before it happened.'

One example of symbolism is that when Mack makes Jamal confront the other Scorpions in the crackhouse, he sees some pigeons eating a muffin. A sparrow tries to get some of the muffin, but the pigeons peck him and run him out.

Myers does not tell readers what the economic status of the family is, but here and there he puts in little details that make it clear. The apartment is so small that there is no privacy. Jamal has to turn his head when his mother takes off her stockings. The shower is cold because there has been no hot water for two days. There are no eggs. He counts the pieces of toast so that he knows he has already eaten his share. Instead of another piece of toast, he gets a drink of water.


This book deals with societal problems—broken families, crimes committed with guns, the legal system, the drug trade, 'crackheads,' poverty, self-image, the school system, and peer pressure. Each is handled with sensitivity and without preaching. Yet the characters and events are treated in such a way that young people can see for themselves the dangers.


1. How important is it for ethnic groups to use standard English? Jamal likes grammar, and could use good language if he wanted to, but at school he uses the word 'yeah' to answer Mr. Davidson's question, and the principal corrects him. ' 'Yes' . . . At least try to talk as if you're civilized.' How would he be regarded if he used 'good' English in his neighborhood?

2. Why do the Scorpions not want members as old as Randy and Mack? Why do they want young boys?

3. Which incidents in the book show that these adults do not respect or care for children?

4. Discuss this statement, 'Guys who were tough seemed tougher when they weren't too smart.'

5. Discuss Mama's statement, 'Tito, sometimes we women got to be harder on you young boys than we want to be. You know that and I know that. Me and your grandmother, we try our best, but God knows it's hard. We say things we don't mean because to say the things we mean is just too hurtin'.'

6. List times when Jamal has trouble at school and what the principal and teachers do or say. What could or should the principal do? How could the school make a positive difference in the boys' lives? Is this treatment going on in schools outside of Harlem?

7. Jamal does not want to become 'a thrown away person.' What does he mean? What should he do to make sure that he does not become one?

8. Discuss the relationship between Jamal and his father. Why does his father not like for Jamal to draw? Why does his father find so much fault and threaten to hurt him?

9. What does Mama mean when she says, 'Lord, when am I ever going to learn that my problems don't belong to nobody but me?' Does she blame Mr. Stanton? In ordinary everyday life is the statement true?


1. Research the use of slang, the part it plays in social groups, and how it comes in and goes out of use. Collect slang words and phrases, then define them, use in them sentences, and create a dictionary of slang (perhaps called 'Slanguage'). Ask older people what slang words they used when they were young.

2. Research what goes on in institutions for juvenile delinquents? What conditions and restrictions do the inmates live with? How many are rehabilitated and better because of the incarceration, and how many go on to more crime and more jail terms? Jamal thinks he knows what jail was like. 'The big guys ganged up on you and beat you up and then they had sex with you.' Is he right? Probation officers, guards, police officers, or former inmates could contribute to this research.

3. Choose a character such as Mack, Indian, Abuela, Mr. Davidson, Sassy, or Mr. Gonzalez, and write a character study of that person. Write some part of the story from that person's standpoint.

4. Find out how drug rings operate both in big cities and in your own area. Someone from the police or sheriff's department could speak to the group.

5. Research a minority group in the United States. What are the numbers and where do they settle? What kind of prejudice arises against the minority? Who are the leaders of the group? How well are they educated? What kind of jobs do they do? It may be possible to get a guest speaker from the minority group.

6. Compare another book by Myers to Scorpions.

7. Read and report on Chapter 8: 'Developing Racial Tolerance with Literature on the Black Inner-City' by James A. Banks. (In Black Image: Education Copes with Color edited by Jean Grambs and John Carr and published by the Wm. C. Brown Company in 1972).

8. Read and report on Part 1 of Variant English: An Introduction to Language Variation by Diane Bryen, Cheryl Harman, and Pearl Tait (Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company in 1978).

9. Myers says, 'Children are the most important people we have in this country, and children's writing is the most important kind of writing.' Read and respond to his article, 'Let Us Celebrate the Children.'


Scorpions deals with growing up black or Puerto Rican in a slum section of a big city where gangs, drugs, broken homes, poverty, poor schools, and violence are a constant threat. Another novel that deals with living in the ghetto or about gangs is Paula Fox's, How Many Miles to Babylon? (1967). In it, to escape harsh reality, James fantasizes that he is really an African prince whose ancestors were brought to America to be slaves. While playing at his fantasy in an abandoned house, he is caught by a gang and forced to take part in the theft of valuable dogs. He becomes stronger as he escapes and assumes responsibility for the dogs, and he realizes the truth about himself, his mother, and his place in the ghetto.

In Eleanor Hull's Moncho and the Dukes (1968), two boys living in the same building in East Harlem are having problems in school and in their neighborhood. A church-sponsored gang takes them in with the aim of doing good instead of violence.

In Kristin Hunter's The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou (1969), Lou is a fourteen year old girl who is a member of a gang that has weapons. Hatred for whites, acceptance of self, violence involving police, and gang action are factors in the story which ends in the success of their singing group. Students could compare the realism in Scorpions with what they find in The Soul Brothers and discuss which book is more believable.

Stephen M. Joseph's The Me Nobody Knows: Children's Voices from the Ghetto (1969), is a book of poetry and prose written by children of the ghetto in which they tell of their fears and hopes as they grow up in slum conditions. Children who do not know what it is to grow up in the inner city can 'walk in other shoes' and see what life is like for the boys in Scorpions and the children who wrote for this book.

There are other novels that deal with life in black neighborhoods that share themes with Scorpions. One is Frank Bonham's The Nitty Gritty (1969). The boys in Scorpions dream of getting out of the ghetto, being rich, dressing fine, and owning a yacht. In The Nitty Gritty Charlie dreams of getting out of the ghetto, too. His father tells him about honest work, but his uncle sells him on a scheme for quick riches by owning a cock and betting on the fight. After the big let-down, Charlie has to deal with the reality of his situation.

One of the most celebrated books for young adults is S. E. Hinton,'s The Outsiders (1967). This is the harsh story of teen-agers who live in a world of poverty and constant danger from rumbles between two gangs, the Scos and the Greasers. Ponyboy Curtis lives with his brothers because his parents died in an automobile accident. When Ponyboy arrives home at 2:00 a.m., and his brother hits him, he runs to a park where he is jumped by five drunken Socs, and his friend Johnny kills one of them with his knife. The boys take refuge in a church and later rescue some children from it when it burns. The fire causes them to be hospitalized. Only Ponyboy is alive at the end of the book. On the back of the paperback the National Observer said that it showed 'What it's like to live lonely and unwanted and cornered by circumstance.' Could that statement be made about Scorpions?

There are several nonfiction books on gangs that would make good reading for young adults. One is Sandra Gardner's Street Gangs (1983). Since the main terror of Scorpions revolves around the gang, students could profit from this book about gangs and how they operate. Another more recent book by Gardner is Street Gangs in America (1992), which presents the violence perpetrated by street gangs. This is a good source for special oral or written reports. It could also be used to tie the literature class to social studies. James Haskins's Street Gangs: Yesterday and Today (1974) traces the history of street gangs and is a good source of background information that correlates with Scorpions.

In addition, there is Evan Stark's Everything You Need to Know about Street Gangs (1991), a book about street gangs which can provide insight on the background for the story of Scorpions.

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