Wednesday, March 30, 2011: Kids' Maximum Shelf: We Are America

Harper: We Are America by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Christopher A Myers

Harper: We Are America by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Christopher A Myers

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: We Are America: A Tribute from the Heart

In this edition of Kids' Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere--we present We Are America: A Tribute from the Heart by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Christopher Myers, which goes on sale on May 3, 2011. The review and interviews are by Jennifer M. Brown. HarperCollins Children's Books has helped support the issue.


Harper: We Are America by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Christopher A Myers

Books & Authors

Walter Dean Myers & Christopher Myers: An Anthem for America

On September 11, 2001, Christopher Myers called his father on the phone. "Dad, check out the television. A plane just flew into the World Trade Center," he said. "Not to be outdone," Walter Dean Myers recalls, "I said, 'I remember back in 1947, a plane flew into the Empire State Building.' " But then the second plane hit. Two months later, Myers was in London with his wife, Connie (Christopher's mother), when a plane malfunctioned and crashed in Queens, N.Y. A group of Middle Eastern men were on a London street, watching the crash on television through the window of an appliance store, cheering because they believed it was an act of terror. The author's complex reactions to these two events sent him on a journey to rediscover what America means to him. Christopher Myers, as the artist, went on an odyssey of his own. But as Christopher puts it, "To be honest, these are conversations, we've been having since I was a kid." Here they let us in on the conversation about how their paths converged in the majestic We Are America.


From your foreword, it seems that this book grew from a place of great feeling. Did the first draft come to you in a rush?

Walter Dean Myers: No, it did not. I started with a very formal, very strict rhythm. I thought, "It's not working for me. I should just write it as I feel it and see what happens," and I did a moderately fast first draft. Then I looked at some of my lines, and I realized I was paraphrasing. So I began looking at the originals. Then I thought, "This guy said it better than I did." Sometimes it was better because the language was more direct. It was so charged with emotion under the original circumstances. I began to make a concerted effort to incorporate them. Then I said, "No, take them out of my material because it's necessary to put these things into context." That gave me a lot of freedom. I could write the way I felt, have these quotations on the side, and hope that my editor would go for it.


As you went through those original documents, how did you decide which quotes to use in the poem?

WDM: Sometimes I'd find, while looking through a speech, something I hadn't put in the book, and think, "let me go and mention this." I hadn't read a lot of it since I was in high school. They were so stirring and to the point. You also find people serving their own purposes, twisting things--twisting Lincoln, twisting Jefferson. It's a damn shame that Jefferson is known to many people only by the fact that he might have had an affair with Sally Hemings.

Christopher Myers: What's also odd about the way people think about these Founding Fathers, is they think about them as people who lived without conflict, who lived as these unified thinkers. That takes away from the strength of what it means to be American. In fact, these guys were debaters, they were thinkers. That's the beauty of this place, that it was founded on the idea of, "Let's make changes, let's discuss." There's the Federalist Papers, but you look even in the work of Jefferson, there's tumult. This is not a country about stasis, this is a country based on tumult. And how does one deal with that?

WDM: That's a good point. You don't make a lot of good points.

CM: Once in a blue moon.


Was Walt Whitman an influence for this piece? I thought of "I Hear America Singing" with its hymn to the satisfaction to be gained from one's work, and also "One Song, America, Before I Go."

WDM: I've always been moved by Whitman. He is, to me, America's greatest poet.  It's not a poetry of detachment, it's not a poetry of abstraction. It's a poetry of love. I was very much conscious of his influence.


Then there are the ongoing themes of liberty and captivity throughout the poem. These kinds of paradoxes are still with us, aren't they?

CM: That for me is part of what I love about this place, is that we are able to acknowledge and to think about our history. I travel a lot, [and in] other places, they work very hard to have a very short memory of their countries--"We sprung up out of nowhere whenever the last regime started." One of the gifts of this place is we can think about and openly acknowledge and openly debate and discuss our history. It's not that I'd ever look at this country and say nothing bad ever happened. I'm the product of some of that bad that has happened, slavery being the emblematic one. At the same time, there are very few places in the world that can be so self-corrective.

WDM: One of the things, talking about slavery, this is a country that brought an end to slavery around the world. American debate brought an end to slavery. It was the American Civil War that brought an end to slavery around the world. England followed us; we did not follow England. As C.L.R. James said, they didn't need slaves in England to do the work, so they could abolish it by keeping it in the islands. Then they didn't need it in the islands because they had already a virtually captive workplace. Although the British abolished slavery before America, it was the American debate that caused that, in my view. Americans talked about ending the powers of slavery more openly and more widely than anyone in the world--that idea of freedom of speech, the idea of debating, the idea of open conversation, it's still so great.

CM: When you ask yourself, "What is America?" there are a lot of definitions. As much as America is the people and the geography, America is also a set of ideas that are very beautiful ideas, a lot of them. That was a big challenge of this book, to contain all those definitions of America, to contain the people, the land, the history, and the ideas. I would put ideas last.

WDM: I'll put ideas first, just to be different.

CM: That's cool. Rewriting runs thick in this family.


For the spread that begins "Like clumsy children/ we fell/ as we learned to run," would you call the references to Wounded Knee and Chapultepec Castle early examples of the kind of present-day jingoism to which you refer in your foreword?

WDM: We have a constant struggle in America. The people who want to achieve power will often address that achievement as patriotism. It's no coincidence that the people who portrayed themselves as the most patriotic are also the ones with the most guns--with the most threats, either veiled or unveiled. The build to power is so great, so fantastic, but what these people are doing is they are saying, "Well, this power is not just me, it's my love of country." When you go into the history of the country and who stood up for the country, who fought for the country, who worked for the country, it's never these people. It's always small people who saw a sense of duty and did it.

CM: We've talked about these things since the inception of this country. That is what our history gives us. Hopefully this book is a tool for a young child or middle-schooler or an adult who would read the book with a child, to start them on a journey to discovering their own America. As Dad says, it's the people who have come in from the side--the immigrants, the poor, the women--who have found ways to make this country better.


Is that, in part, what informed your decisions about which individuals to include in your paintings?

CM: There were several things going on in my election of Americans. I wanted to think about Americans that were unsung--Americans that did something to change the way Americans were viewed both at home and abroad. There are some wonderful lines about the landscape of America that Dad had written. What's amazing about America is how the diversity of the landscape mirrors the diversity of the people. You take, for example, Duke Kahanamoku, who's known as the father of modern surfing, a Hawaiian guy. Here he is, a tall dark brown man who lived in the water and represented the U.S. in swimming events in five Olympics. He went around the world, spreading surfing and spreading the good will that he'd grown up with in Hawaii. The idea of what an American was changed. He changed it--as did all of the people that I elected after many debates along the way. To be honest, that's all of our jobs in some way. Sometimes I travel in Asia; I was recently in Sudan. You tell people, "I'm an American." Certain places they look at you with incredulity. They say, "Americans look like this, Americans look like that." You want to say, "No, Americans look like me."

WDM: That happened to us in a village in Egypt, a guy looked at us and asked, "Who are you people?" We said, "Americans." They didn't want to accept us. They accepted Connie [who has fair skin] as an American but not me.

CM: People have this idea of Americans as being all blond-haired, blue-eyed cowboys or raven-haired socialites. Whatever the latest television show is. I'm always a bit taken aback. That was one of the things I wanted to talk about in the book visually. There are different classes, races, different articulations of self that are all equally American in the fact that they couldn't exist anywhere else.


So many of the images take on a mural-like quality. I thought of the WPA project murals. Did they evolve into layered works? Did you do a lot of sketches first?

CM: One of the chief influences of the art in the book is the Mexican muralists and the muralists of the WPA. There's a lot of cross-pollination between them, everyone from Aaron Douglas to Thomas Hart Benton, who did these WPA murals that tried to wrangle entire histories of countries and entire intellectual trajectories. The hard part is doing something that can match the anthemic and all-encompassing tone of the text, as well as--Dad talked about Whitman's quality of love. Love is big, love is open, especially the love that I have for my country. The strategy of muralists, and of people who want to tell this layered, rich history, is to add richness in that layering. Not one of the pieces would work without that layering. That being said, there were a lot of preparatory sketches, a lot of internal debate.


The paintings themselves were 9' x 3', weren't they? Did you just lay them all around your studio and live inside them?

CM: About 9' x 3', yes. They took up a lot of space in my studio. And yes, pretty much, that's what I did for months on end, with occasional phone calls from Phoebe [Yeh], our editor. She'd say, "So how's it going?" And I'd say, "Right now I'm sleeping in the sky that is being trod upon by a Mohawk skyscraper worker in the 1940s." For me, it felt like taking a thousand mice and trying to hook them up to a chariot.

WDM: And making promises left and right, "Don't worry, Dad, it's coming soon."

Your images often point out a paradox when laid out against the text, such as the image for "We were willing to die/ to forge our dream," where you show the violent response to the peaceful civil rights demonstrations against the founding fathers' words, then you also join that together with the colonists risking their lives to resist King George III.

CM: For me, that spread is about seeing our country as being a country in which the history of debate and protest are central. People try to take away the through line, often. They want to say that my debate was different than your debate; my struggle for rights was different than your struggle for rights. When in fact, you're still coming back to the same amazing, beautiful, brilliant and flexible and open documents. You're saying, look, through these documents, let me assert my right for humanity. It's important to remind ourselves that the Civil Rights movement was in some ways the realization of the independence dreams that were had in the 1700s, to see those through lines, to lengthen our concept of history. I tried to focus on Americans whose speech was important, who spoke with their art, who spoke with their words, with their statesmanship, with their science. This is not a country that tells people that they need to be quiet. This is a country that says, "What do you have to say? We want to know."


Your first picture-book collaboration was Harlem in 1997. In what ways was it different to work on this book, or does it feel like part of a continuum?

WDM: For me, it felt like a continuum, because I think what you do with literature is you define yourself, and you define your place. How I know who I am is how I define the world around me. I took Christopher to Harlem as a kid, and showed him all the places I triumphed. [Laughs.] I think he understood how I was defining Harlem; he took it from there. As we talk about this idea of America, I'm listening to the conversations that we're having now. You mentioned Chapultepec, and Christopher and I were there, and defining that, and defining ourselves in Egypt, and defining ourselves in London [where I live] five weeks a year. So we're constantly defining ourselves and discussing it. I see it as a continuum. What do you think, Chris?

CM: I absolutely see it as a continuum, but specifically because--we talk about Harlem and the United States as geographic spaces, but more than geographic spaces, they're conceptual spaces. They're places you write songs about. This is our song. Harlem is a conceptual place, Harlem is a place I look to both as a home, and as an exemplar of an artistic moment and a cultural moment that very strongly relates to me. Similarly, in a larger way, America is a conceptual place. There is a song that is there to be sung about diversity, about ideals, about hope, about dreaming. We're both, I think, very excited to have added our voices to the chorus.

Photo: Malin Fezehal

Harper: We Are America by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Christopher A Myers

Behind the Scenes with Editor Phoebe Yeh

Phoebe Yeh has been working with Walter Dean Myers for more than 15 years. One of their early projects together, Monster (for which Christopher Myers did the cover and interior art), won the very first Michael L. Printz Award. By the time Myers sent the manuscript for We Are America to Yeh, there was only "very light editing in terms of the macro ideas of the manuscript," she said. "He had done so much of the work before I saw it." Yeh cited another such example, his novel Street Love, which Myers originally wrote in iambic pentameter and then rewrote before turning it in. "He's at a level where he knows what he wants and doesn't always have it the first couple of tries."

After Myers sent We Are America to Yeh, she called him the next day and told him, "I'm thinking this is for Chris to illustrate." She believed that Christopher Myers had the "intellectual curiosity" to meet the challenge of the text. It took him three years to illustrate the project. "When you see the book, it makes perfect sense," said Yeh. "He had to come up with the entire visual landscape for every spread. There was so much content. With [the poem's] reference to the boats, for example, people would have expected Christopher Columbus, and he showed John Smith." Around year two, Yeh got to see a sample of the artwork--nine feet wide. "We got nervous because we thought, 'We've never shot a book like this. How are we going to do it? Where's the type going to go?" Martha Rago, the designer, had to come up with a layout that would integrate long, flowing lines of poetry, the quotes from the original documents and expansive horizontal artwork. The art vignettes were Christopher Myers's idea. "I want kids to focus and to look closely," he told Yeh. He felt that pulling out a detail from the artwork would help them do that. He also suggested the classical typeface.

"The book will mean so much to anyone who lives here now, whether you were born and raised here, or came here," Yeh said. She herself is a first-generation American; her parents were both born in China and came to the U.S. after World War II. From a historical perspective, she believes the integration of the original quotes emphasizes Walter Dean Myers's point of their enduring impact. "Everyone made fun of Christina Aguilera for not knowing the words to 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' but I thought that was sad," Yeh said. "By having these quotes, Walter's asking, 'Why are these words still important?' and also to think of these words as poetry." The image of the children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance serves as a portrait of America today. "It's as important for Caucasian children as it is children of color to see that message of inclusion." Like the Myerses, Yeh hopes the book will launch readers on a personal journey. "I know people ask, 'Are we a melting pot or mosaic?' No one here is trying to make a statement about that. We're saying, 'You decide,' " she said. "You want to remember why people fought so hard to make something different."


Book Brahmin: Walter Dean Myers

On your nightstand now:

Dictionary of Etymology, Robert K. Barnhart, editor; Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Two books to browse through at three in the morning

Favorite book when you were a child:

Robin Hood.

My top five authors:

Juan Ramon Jiminez, Honoré de Balzac, James Baldwin, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats.

Books I've faked reading:

Human, All too Human by Friedrich Nietzsche. I tried reading this in French (at 14) and it was just too hard, but I plowed through it. I was fascinated by Nietzsche at the time.

Book I am an evangelist for:

Platero and I by Juan Ramon Jiminez. This is available in English and Spanish and is an absolute marvel of a book. I wish I could write nearly this well.

Book I've bought for the cover:

How to Cook by Carole Clements-- I love cooking and this book looked so business-like I had to have it. I love it!

Book that changed my life:

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a fascinating person. I would love to have known him.

Book I most want to read again for the first time:

The World's Best, edited by Whit Burnett--I found this book at a low point in my life, and discovered a world of excellent writers who I knew were my true, and long lost, family.

Author I would most like to have met:

I think Mark Twain and I would have hit it off very well, so it's a toss-up between Twain and Gabriela Mistral. Mistral's poetry touches me in a way that makes me want to be a better person.

Photo: Connie Myers

Book Brahmin: Christopher Myers

On your nightstand now:

Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt; Harlem Is Nowhere by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts; and Ex-Machina, Vol. 10, Term Limits by Brian K. Vaughn. Of course the comic book will get read first.

Favorite book when you were a child:

A book of Greek and Roman mythology that was illustrated with all these great works of art by great artists. Picasso, Breughel, Redon, Tintoretto were all included. I especially remember a painting of Icarus by Herbert James Draper.

Your top five authors:

This is one of those totally unfair questions that begets even more questions. I mean how do you compare Flannery O'Connor with Basho with Aime Cesaire with Sherman Alexie or Amos Tutuola? They are all authors, but in such different ways. But I did get five in there... but they would be totally different if you asked me again in five minutes.

Book you've faked reading:

Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native. I wrote an essay about it in high school. I read about 50 pages, found myself disappointed that there were no "natives." I didn't really know what a heath was, or a reddleman, and when I read in an encyclopedia that it was published in installments like a soap opera, that gave me even more reason to put it down.

Book you are an evangelist for:

Truthfully, I am an evangelist for so many books. Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, and her whole oeuvre have been frequent gifts. As has Russell Edson's prose poems, or Harryette Mullen's Muse and Drudge. Percival Everett's Erasure is still one of my favorite books, as is Paul Beatty's White Boy Shuffle. Oh, and Tripmaster Monkey by Maxine Hong Kingston... should I change my five favorite authors list now?

Book you've bought for the cover:

Shaun Tan's The Arrival is a great cover but so is that whole book. I'm so trying to beat that book!

Book that changed your life:

Greg Tate's Flyboy in the Buttermilk made me know that there were lots of folks out there like me. Dear Theo, Letters from V. Van Gogh still helps when I'm down on myself about the work I'm making...  that guy was always down on himself about his work. (I think he's actually a pretty good artist....)

Favorite line from a book:


Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Clarice Lispector, Family Ties; Fran Ross, Oreo... actually, maybe I should redo that list of five again.

Photo: Malin Fezehal

Book Review

Children's Review: We Are America: A Tribute from the Heart

We Are America: A Tribute from the Heart by Walter Dean Myers (Collins, $16.99 Hardcover, 9780060523084, May 2011)

This glorious picture book by the father-son team that created Harlem immerses us deep inside the United States of America--its geography, its character, its ideas, its people. The close-up cover portrait of Lady Liberty suggests both untold strength and centuries of bearing witness to the "huddled masses" who have arrived on her shores. Author and artist ask us to reconsider icons such as the flag, the military uniform, and words and phrases we say from memory--the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance--and to ponder their deeper implications. What does it mean to be an American? What does America mean to you?

The images at the heart of the book reverberate as a result of the layering of Walter Dean Myers's stirring original poem; quotes he places alongside his stanzas from this country's Founding Fathers and leading thinkers; and Christopher Myers's majestic oil pastel compositions, as sweeping as the land from Atlantic to Pacific, as intimate as the faces of those who give this country its character. Walter Dean Myers's words call to mind Walt Whitman, expressing devotion to America and subtlely urging that we continue to consider its evolving greatness. With his expansive canvases (measuring 9' x 3'), Christopher Myers evokes the WPA murals of the 1930s in scope and theme, in celebration of a country built by rugged individualists.

Author and artist embrace the complexity of America's past and, in doing so, demonstrate the debt we owe to those who came before us for the freedoms we enjoy and also the responsibility we carry not to repeat the wrongs of history. The poem begins "Before there was America/ Before the ships came/ Their white sails ablaze against the clear blue sky." A progression of images moves from a Lakota scout on the left across a horizontal expanse that includes a ghost dance, a Mohawk skywalker atop the steel skeleton of a skyscraper and, on the far right, Will "I-never-met-a-man-I-didn't-like" Rogers, born to the Cherokee Nation. A quote from Tecumseh illuminates the idea that Native Americans did not believe that man could own territory ("This land belongs to the first who sits down on his blanket...."). Only in the endnotes does Walter Dean Myers mention broken treaties and the establishment of reservations. The cumulative effect of the poem, the painting and the quote allow us to grasp, in one spread, the appropriation of the land and the loss of culture; and what the blending of the European and Native American values has given Americans, both in the literal building of the country and in the widening of our shared heritage.

This undercurrent of hope carries readers through the entire poem. The next stanza introduces ships with "their white sails ablaze." Captain John Smith sails toward Jamestown on one side of the illustration ("Before I knew that/ there was America/ I had a freedom dream") and, on the other end of the composition, a refugee boat. The red-and-white stripes on the sleeves of a passenger recall the face-paint stripes of the Lakota scout on the previous spread. The lines of the poem were as true for the Puritans as they are for today's refugees: "The taut bow of anticipation/ The arrow of adventure/ Flying across the ocean." The "bow of anticipation" launches  “the arrow of adventure”; it also doubles as the bow of the ship, leading the way into their dream of a better life.

The Puritans and refugees came for freedom, but there were also those who knew freedom and lost it here. "Like clumsy children/ we fell/ As we learned to run" begins the stanza that refers to slavery ("thousands of souls smothering beneath the hatches"). The book's creators do not shy away from the ugly events of the past. The poem references the battle at Wounded Knee, the capture of Chapultepec Castle during the Mexican-American War, and illustrations show the scarred back of an enslaved man, bodies on a reservation, and Japanese-American families behind an internment camp fence. Even so, Walter Dean Myers's closing lines of the stanza continue their undercurrent of hope: "Power was too strong a temptation/ And yet, and yet.../ We could hold up our sins for the world to see/ Condemning our wrongs even as we committed them."

Sometimes the quote amplifies the poem; sometimes it contradicts the text. At times, the art buoys the text; other times, it points out a paradox. "We were willing to die/ to forge our dream" begin the lines that pay homage to Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and others who "wrote the verses that made revolution irresistible." A quote on the page comes directly from the Constitution ("We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice...."). The artwork juxtaposes an image of nonviolent Civil Rights protests met with violence on the left and colonists throwing tea into Boston harbor on the right; the author and artist are suggesting that protest remains a constant of our citizenry.

Several spreads celebrate the country's vast and varied geography. In one painting, Hawaii's Duke Kahanamoku, a surfer and five-time Olympic medalist in swimming, and Amelia Earhart command the sea and sky. Duke's outstretched arms--in a Moses-like pose that seems to hold back the Pacific--echo the wingspread of Amelia Earhart's plane as it glides across the "endless land." A buffalo grazes along "the twisting route of the Chisholm Trail" in another painting, as cowboys herd cattle in a field of bluebonnets, and, on the right, Mark Twain stares out at the Mississippi River. The ones who built up this "endless land" were often the new arrivals. "We were machines/ belching smoke/ ... / We were Irish muscle and Polish pride/ Germans and Italians/ Africans and Chinese/ Mexican and English." The artwork introduces a parade led by an African-American brickmaker on the left, Chinese rail workers in the middle, and automakers (including a woman) in Detroit on the right.

A number of dedicated spreads depict individuals who've left a legacy. Several give tribute to soldiers' lives and limbs lost, the price paid for both ideals and land, from the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Civil War through the World Wars and Vietnam to the Iraq War. Full-color and black-and-white montages celebrate people who came to America to freely express their ideas (Albert Einstein) or, faced with injustice, gathered with other likeminded folk to create change for a better society (Cesar Chavez, Gloria Steinem, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and dreamt of a better life than the one they inherited (Dr. Mae Jemison, a physician and the first African-American to travel in space).

The only painting to focus on a single image is the portrait of eight children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, each face contributing to the diverse quilt of America. "We were the youth that could not fail/ Planting our high ideals in virgin lands and eager hearts/ Making vows forever brighter than the story we would live." Myers speaks of the "youth" in the sense of a young nation, and also the hope and promise of a child. Immediately we are thrust back into our classrooms, thinking about the words in that pledge. This will be the image most recognizable to young readers. They, too, will consider the meaning of the pledge. Is it words said by rote? What does it mean to pledge "an allegiance to liberty/ and justice"? The Myerses invite us into a conversation, between parent and child, teacher and student, peer to peer and within ourselves.

By sharing their own journeys into what America means to them, Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers have given us a road map for a rediscovering of America and our place within it. This powerful book is also a call to action, to examine where we have been as a nation, whether it is what we wish it to be, and what we can do to make it all that it could be.


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