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Review of "Handbook for Boys"

By Walter Dean Myers
HarperCollins, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Aug 8th 2002
Handbook for Boys

Walter Dean Myers is one of the most prominent African-American writers for children and young adults.  In Handbook for Boys he tells a story with a purpose, as he explains in the preface.  His aim is to provide a portrayal of role models for young African-American men of the sort he would have found useful at their age.  Jimmy is 16 years old, and is about to be sentenced to six months in a juvenile facility for beating up another boy when Duke Wilson, who owns a barbershop, makes an offer to take on Jimmy as part of a community mentoring program.  He finds that 17-year-old Kevin also works at Dukes; Kevins arrangement is to work for Duke for two years in exchange for Duke paying for Kevins first two years of college.  Kevin does much better at high school than Jimmy, and the two are suspicious of each other.  But they both have a lot to learn from Duke and his friends, and Duke is very willing to give his opinions on life to the boys.

One of Dukes first striking words of wisdom to Jimmy is about the importance of thinking things through for himself, and he talks about Descartes discussion of the foundation of knowledge.  Duke even says he thinks that children should be taught philosophy as soon as they start school, because learning to think for oneself is the most important skills in life.  As different customers and friends come through the shop, Duke chats with them about their lives and after they leave, he discusses what they said, what they achieved, and what their faults are.  Duke seems rather judgmental, and his judgments might seem rather ponderous and deliberate ways for Myers to insert his own views of life.  But the novel is well written, and as vividly performed in the unabridged audiobook by Peter Francis James, the story remains interesting all the way through.  Duke has a wry humor and down to earth wisdom that has a lot of charm, and the different characters that sit in his barbers chair are captured in winning vignettes. 

Im hardly in a position to judge whether young African-American men will find Handbook for Boys inspiring, but Myers certainly attempts to create a dialog between the generations in this novel, and it a far more thoughtful approach than documentaries such as Scared Straight about the importance of obeying the law. [Note, parenthetically, that a documentary on Scared Straight! 20 Years Later has recently been made.]  Especially interesting from a psychological point of view are Dukes reflections on how people know what is right and yet fail to live up to their own ideals, especially when it comes to taking drugs.  Its hard to imagine that reading one book will make a great difference to young men struggling with a variety of temptations, but Handbook for Boys could at least be part of the solution.



Link: HarperCollins web page with RealAudio excerpt


© 2002 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.

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