Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Myers, Walter Dean. The Cruisers. Scholastic, 2010 (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

My students love the Bluford High series as much as they enjoy A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer; the aforementioned selections are always the most requested at the beginning of the year by my middle schoolers. Although I admire his ability to survive deplorable circumstances, I cannot say that I enjoy Mr. Pelzer’s bizarre and disturbing tale; however, I love the Bluford books and I am always looking for comparable series. I originally bought Orca Currents and Soundings and reviewed several selections in this column a year or two ago. My students like the Orca books, but I seldom see in their eyes the excitement generated by the Bluford High (and occasionally Sharon Draper’s Hazelwood High) series. Therefore, I am thrilled that local legend Walter Dean Myers has decided to write The Cruisers, the first in a series of short, very readable novels about a group of smart slackers at a Harlem magnet school. I am gratified to see prominent authors step up and fill this important void in YA literature; it’s about time.

Most of the students attending Harlem’s DaVinci Academy for the Gifted and Talented compete and jockey for academic standing. However, Zander Scott and his friends LaShonda, Bobbi, and Kambui form the core the Cruisers, a group of unabashed underachievers who always seem on the verge of both success and failure simultaneously. The group prints and distributes an alternative newspaper that presents uncensored op-ed material without the harsh filter of the stereotypically mean and vindictive Assistant Principal Culpepper. The Cruisers’ patience, wisdom, and raison d’etre are challenged most strenuously when DaVinci Academy holds a mock Civil War and the Cruisers are charged with the monumental task of keeping the peace between the North and South. Mr. Culpepper is almost happy to see the group get such an improbable task: “‘She [Principal Maxwell] sees it as a final opportunity to prove you belong here. I see it as enough rope. If you get my drift’” (3). The project begins innocuously enough, but after bully Alvin McCraney forms the Sons of the Conspiracy and starts acting and speaking like a slaveowner (with the tacit approval of Mr. Culpepper), the Cruisers learn a powerful lesson from history: that slaveowners hid behind issues of property and free speech instead of openly addressing the immorality of slavery. By failing to include a moral element, Alvin and the Sons of the Confederacy could win the battle but lose their souls, almost like a drug addict selfishly satisfies the moment but does not want to be identified with his actions: “Maybe race was more like drugs than people thought. When they could use race it was good, but nobody wanted to own it when they got caught using it” (64). The Cruisers will have to learn history’s lessons well to successfully combat DaVinci’s widening racial divide without starting a huge fight and threatening their ability to attend the academy.

Young adult literature needs more 120-page, high-low books with urban backdrops, and Mr. Myers has the experience and skill to create effective stories regardless of length. The Cruisers is short but effective, and a series is promised and eagerly anticipated; the first few pages of the next installment appear at the end of this work. I enjoyed the chapter breaks, during which warring newspaper articles, journal entries, and poems cleverly highlight or illuminate the characters’ struggles and conflicts. The language feels real, and social networking is frequently employed for positive change, negative gossip, and both; it doesn’t get any more real than that. Each of the four main characters has an engaging backstory, and I believe my students will follow them with the same fervor they apply to authors like Paul Langan, Anne Schraaf, and Sharon Draper. Kudos to New Jersey native Walter Dean Myers for The Cruisers. Townsend Press, as supportive and generous as it is, had better watch its back.

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