97 pages • 3 hours read
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Bad Boy is a 2001 memoir spanning roughly the first seventeen years of YA writer Walter Dean Myers’s life. In it, Myers explores how the time he spent growing up in a mixed-race, working-class family in 1940s-and-50s Harlem impacted his eventual career as a writer.
To do so, Myers first explains his complicated family history: Myers’s biological parents were both black, but he was adopted at a very young age by his father’s first wife, Florence—a half-German, half-Native American woman who later remarried a black man named Herbert Dean. Myers adored his adoptive parents, and fondly recalls how his mother instilled an early love of language in him by reading aloud to him in their “sun-drenched Harlem kitchen” (14).
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Despite his strong reading skills, Myers initially had trouble in school, largely thanks to a speech impediment that made him the target of bullying. In turn, Myers would lash out at his attackers and get into trouble himself. As he moved through elementary school, however, teachers began to recognize his potential and take steps to help him succeed by providing him with books to read, enrolling him in speech-therapy classes, and eventually moving him to an accelerated class that would allow him to graduate early. Myers also benefited from the friendships he was forming, not only with the local boys he played basketball with, but also with fellow students of different races and backgrounds.
When Myers entered high school, however, his life slowly began to unravel. For one, Myers’s increasingly intellectual interests distanced him from his parents; Herbert couldn’t read, and Florence didn’t read the sorts of literature Myers was now enjoying or, increasingly, emulating in his own writing. At the same time, Myers felt out of place at Stuyvesant High because of the emphasis it placed on sending its students on to college; although Myers himself desperately wanted to continue his education, his family’s financial situation was deteriorating, and he realized that he would likely not be able to do so. Most of all, Myers was increasingly aware of how being black limited his options in life. In fact, he was so used to a school curriculum centered on white authors that he came to see his own blackness as an obstacle to his dreams of becoming a writer himself.
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As a result of all this, Myers grew deeply depressed and reverted to his earlier “bad boy” habits; he skipped school frequently, got into neighborhood fights, and cut himself off from virtually all his friends. The exception was Frank—a man with a history of blacking out and killing people. Although “mild-mannered” when in his right senses, Frank led a dangerous life, picking up odd jobs delivering drugs (158). He was eventually forced to flee the city for his own safety, and Myers—who had accompanied him on several jobs—realized that he was in danger as well. Shortly after high school graduation (an event Myers missed entirely), Myers enlisted in the Army.
Bad Boy doesn’t describe Myers’s adult life in detail, instead skimming over the years Myers spent in the military and in working various blue-collar jobs. Myers explains, however, that the unthinking life he was living eventually became intolerable, and that he turned back to writing as a result. Slowly, he began to see some of his work published—particularly once he realized his experiences as a black man were a potential source of creativity, not a roadblock to it. Myers eventually became a full-time writer and made his peace with his childhood, which he now considers “marvelous” (205). He writes that while his parents still don’t fully understand his career, they largely support him in it. Above all, Myers expresses his gratitude for the “world” he now inhabits, which he says is full of “book lovers and people eager to rise to the music of language and ideas” (206).
By Walter Dean Myers