Scorpions is a young adult, coming-of-age novel written by best-selling children’s author Walter Dean Myers. Like many of Myers’s works, the book is based on his experience of growing up in New York City’s historically African American Harlem neighborhood. Exploring themes of brotherhood and masculinity, love and loyalty, race, class, and curtailed opportunity, the narrative follows 12-year-old Jamal Hicks as he is confronted with a life-changing dilemma: whether or not to step into the shoes of his imprisoned older brother to lead a gang of young drug-runners called the Scorpions. Regularly confronted by the challenges of poverty, violence, drugs, crime, and discrimination, Jamal struggles to make positive life choices and to face the consequence of his decisions.
The novel was first published by Harper & Row in 1988 and was named as a Newbury Award Honor Book the following year. Scorpions is an early title amongst the more than 100 books written by Myers, who was recognized with the American Library Association’s Margaret Edward Award in 1994 and served as a National Ambassador for Children’s Literature from 2012 to 2013.
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The page numbers in this guide refer to the 1991 HarperCollins edition of the text.
Content Warning: The source material and this guide include descriptions of drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic abuse, gang violence, and gun violence.
The SuperSummary difference
Scorpions is a work of realistic fiction set in 1980s Harlem, a borough of New York City that had a predominately African American population at the time. The story uses a third-person limited narrative technique in which events are told from the perspective of the novel’s protagonist, 12-year-old Jamal Hicks. Jamal lives with his mother, Mama, and his eight-year-old sister, Sassy, in a small apartment. Jamal’s father, Jevon, visits occasionally but is mostly out of their lives. The family used to live together, but Jevon struggled with alcoholism after losing a job and began abusing Mama, who took the children and left. It is implied that Jamal’s older brother, Randy, had to become the “man of the house” after that (38). Now that Randy is in jail for shooting someone during an attempted robbery, Jamal often feels like he needs to fulfill that role. Jamal does clearly help out around the house, cooking dinners and watching Sassy, but he would like to be able to contribute to the household financially too.
Mama is loving, strong, and devoutly Christian, but she’s frequently tired and stressed about money, Randy, and supporting her other children. Jamal loves and worries about his mother, who works long hours at an insecure, low-paying job to makes ends meet. She believes that if she could only earn enough money to pay the lawyer, Randy’s case could be appealed and his sentence reduced. However, the $2,000 necessary is more than she can earn, and her rich employer refuses to lend her the money.
Beyond the strains of his homelife, Jamal is also having a difficult time at school. He is being bullied by a bigger kid named Dwayne, who is constantly threatening to beat him up. The school’s principal has written him off as a lost cause, expecting him to fail and become a criminal like his brother. Jamal finds an outlet from all the stresses of home and school in his passion for drawing and painting and his very close friendship with his classmate, Tito. Tito’s family is from Puerto Rico, but he lives in Harlem with his Abuela (Spanish for grandma). Tito is a thoughtful, sensitive, and sometimes fearful kid, but he always has Jamal’s back no matter what—even when Jamal makes decisions that Tito doesn’t agree with, like getting involved with a gang.
Before Randy was imprisoned, he was the leader of a local gang called the Scorpions. They earn money by running crack cocaine for dealers. All the members have to be under 18 so that they won’t be tried as adults if they get caught by the police. Randy has told his second-in-command, Mack, that Jamal should take over for him. Mack promises to protect Jamal and gives him a gun to ensure that the others listen to the smaller and younger kid.
At first, Jamal is not interested in being the leader of the Scorpions or in helping to get his brother out of jail, since he thinks that Randy is bad news and hard on his mom. However, his mom’s sorrow and failed attempts to get the money for Randy’s appeal convinces Jamal that running with the Scorpions might be a way to earn some easy cash. He’s also sick of being bullied by Dwayne, so having a gun and a gang as back-up might make the bigger kid stop.
Tito doesn’t want Jamal to lead the Scorpions or take the gun, but he agrees to join up too when Jamal does. The rest of the gang is skeptical of Jamal stepping in. Two members nicknamed Indian and Angel challenge his authority, but they back down when they see that Jamal has a gun. When Dwayne challenges him to another fight, Jamal realizes that he has a simple way to win. He takes the gun to school in a paper bag, pulling it on Dwayne, who cowers in terror. Jamal admits to Tito that he almost shot Dwayne. He knows that he should get rid of the gun, but he cannot bring himself to because he now understands the power and protection the gun gives him. He asks Tito to hide the gun for him, which gets Tito in huge trouble with Abuela when she finds it. Still, Jamal doesn’t take responsibility for or get rid of the gun.
Jamal tries to earn legitimate money by working in a supermarket, but Indian and Angel show up and ruin it for him. After Randy is knifed in prison and a distraught Mama has to go visit him in the hospital each day, Jamal tries to figure out a way to get out of the gang. He tells Indian that Randy wants Indian to take over as leader and agrees to meet up with the Scorpions to hand over the reins. He realizes that he will probably get beaten up, but he’s willing to take it if it will mean being done with the gang. Tito agrees to come along to the midnight meeting, carrying the gun and keeping hidden. When they arrive, only Indian and Angel are there. As they attack Jamal with knives, Tito shoots them to protect Jamal. Jamal and Tito run away and dispose of the gun, but Tito sobs in despair.
Jamal thinks that Tito might not have killed Indian and Angel but later learns that Angel is dead and Indian was arrested for possession when he went into the hospital’s emergency room for treatment. Mack takes over the Scorpions and takes credit for the shooting to enhance his street cred. Tito is deeply wounded by the experience. He gets very sick and refuses to leave his apartment, though Jamal keeps watch for him at the building’s entrance. Tito finally confesses that he killed someone to Abuela, who makes him take his altered version of the story (which doesn’t involve Jamal) to the police. As the police know that the victims were gang members, the police are not interested in prosecuting Tito. They agree to let him off the hook as a juvenile delinquent provided that he leaves New York, so he and Abuela move back to Puerto Rico, where Tito’s father lives.
Jamal is devastated to lose his best friend. Change is also happening at school, where the principal has used the excuse of Jamal missing some homework to try to send him to a special school for juvenile delinquents. Mama wants them all to relocate to North Carolina, but Jamal wants to stay in Harlem.
In the final moments of the book, Jamal goes to say goodbye to Tito. He tries to apologize for not throwing away the gun when Tito said that they should, but he cannot find the right words. Jamal partly still wishes that he had the gun. He brings a portrait that he drew of Tito as a parting gift. Tito rejects it as first because it doesn’t look like him anymore, but he changes his mind, coming back to take it and give Jamal a last embrace. Jamal walks home alone into an uncertain future.
By Walter Dean Myers