Review of the Day: Looking Like Me by Walter Dean Myers
Says the parent to the librarian, "I need something for my child to improve their self-esteem." Uh-huh. Fine. Self-esteem. That’s the kind of topic that inspires the worst possible books for kids, you know. Cute forest animals who learn about sharing and small classroom dramas about "being yourself." If an author goes out there and says, "I’m going to write a book about self-esteem" they may find it near impossible to do well. Books of that sort have to come from someplace deep inside, or else they end up sounding like a novelization of a Barney the Dinosaur episode. So the next time a parent comes up to me and repeats that request, I’m going to be ready. My reference desk is situated a mere two and a half feet from the poetry shelves. I will look them in the eye, push my chair to the right, and pluck Looking Like Me by Walter Dean & Chris Myers out of the J811 Myers section. And if they start in with the "I don’t know if I want poetry" nonsense, I shall explain that this is the best of the best. A combination of text and image so far and above the usual schlock that they simply have no choice. They must take it. And I will say this with the confidence that is born of knowing that you are 100% right.
"I looked in the mirror and what did I see? / A real handsome dude looking just like me." Two handsome dudes, father and son, come together to write a book of poetry about a kid who has all kinds of identities. He’s a son and a brother. A poet and a runner. "I’m a city child. / I love the dizzy heights, / the concrete, the steel, / the bright neon lights." He’s a dancer and a dreamer. This kid is all sorts of things. Set against Christopher Myers’ eye-popping paper and photographic collages, we see how many people one person can be.
I don’t actually know the complete story behind Looking Like Me. As near as I can figure, though, it was something like this: Under normal circumstances picture book poetry titles are written first, illustrated second. That’s how Myers, father and son, did Harlem and Blues Journey and such. Looking Like Me was completely different. First, Chris Myers made the art for one project and Walter Dean Myers wrote the poem for another. Then some genius somewhere thought to put the two together and by gum, it worked! That’s no mean feat. To find a way to make a picture of a three-headed dude wearing white earmuffs make sense in the context of a story that was written for an entirely different purpose takes equal amounts of skill and luck.
It’s probably too late to claim that this is the first instance of fist bumping in a children’s book. I’m gonna go out on a limb, though, and claim that it IS the first instance of fist-bumping in a children’s work of poetry put out by a major publisher. That’s hardly the biggest innovation the book’s text supports, though. Walter Dean Myers is the kind of guy who basically exudes depth and meaning every time he breathes. Which is great, of course, but it’s nice to see him doing something a little lighter here. The book feels happy. Bouncy even. The first line sets the tone, and everything after that is just jocular. "Grandma’s rings and bangles gave such a noisy BAM! / They were really celebrating the kind of guy I am."
Now the art is an interesting combination of techniques. Flip to the publication page and not a word is breathed about Chris and his style. Here are a couple of things we do know. The cover is a mix of cut paper and an enlarged microscopic image. Recently Chris has been playing around with microscopes. He’s blown up slides of things like tree bark, enlarged them, and the vibrant colors. Inside the book are photographs, physical objects, and cut paper silhouettes of varying colors that over and underlap one another. Faces exist with cut out eyes. Mouths put out long house-covered tongues or open to reveal the necks of other mouths with other necks. It could be nightmarish if placed with the right text, but here it’s a gentle surreality. Walter takes away the dark elements, so that the book has a dreamlike rather than nightmarish quality to it.
And I like the font. Sorry. That’s a relatively dull way to end a review of a book of this sort, but it’s true. I like it. That and the words, colors, energy, tone, and message, of course. Little things like that. On the surface it’s a book about loving who you are, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a visual stimulant and unapologetic shout of joy. This is a book that enjoys being a book. Read it with a smile on your face. You can bet plenty of kids will.
On shelves now.
Notes on the Illustrator Photo: Chris Myers just won the Best Childhood Picture Ever contest. He is seen here, at the end of this book, around the age of 5 or 6 in a three-piece suit. I kid you not. That’s some crazy cool style for a kid that age. Crazy cool.
Source: Copy of hardcover edition sent by Goodman Media.
- The Joy of Children’s Literature
- Pink Me
- Kids Lit
- The Brown Bookshelf
- Carrie’s YA Bookshelf
- NC Teacher Stuff
Interviews: "In Looking Like Me I was very conscious of trying to mimic the way that media layers images. Television and print nowadays packs as many images as it can into the smallest spaces, on TV screens a 30-second take is considered almost unbearable. Books are brilliant because you can pack all that information and material in, but still allow a viewer the time to take it all in. That’s one way I am trying to deal with the historically specific moment of today’s media format." An interview with Walter and Chris at Follett Library Resources.
- This book has appeared on the School Library Journal Best Books of 2009 list.
- Here are some suggestions for using this book in the classroom, all thanks to Margo Dill’s Read These Books and Use Them! site.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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