Allison's Book Bag

Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers

Posted on: February 11, 2013

Have you ever held a gun? If you were suddenly to find yourself in possession of one, what would you do? Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers is an empathetic portrayal of Jamal, who finds himself in this situation. Just as well-crafted is the gradual way in which Myers intensifies the conflict: Jamal goes from punching the class bully to wielding a gun to escape a fight. Scorpions is worth the Newbery Honor it received and should invoke thought from all who read it.

In some ways, Jamal is a typical kid. He wants to do well in school but forgets to copy down homework assignments, becomes distracted from teacher lectures, and puts off studying for tests. When his mom asks him to clean the dishes he pitches with chores, but he also tires her out by constantly bickering with his sister. In other ways, Jamal faces a harder life than some kids. His mom works extra hours, because she needs to raise money to pay for an appeal to get the oldest sibling Randy out of jail.  This situation is compounded, because Randy wants Jamal to hold his place for him with the Scorpion. That idea doesn’t sit well with the gang, until Jamal shows up with a gun. Once Jamal discovers the power of having a gun, he faces a new struggle because the gun feels both wrong and right all at the same time.

The main other characters in Scorpions are Jamal’s family, his best friend, and the gang members. Jamal and his sister bicker with all the fire of real siblings. On some occasions, Sassy is so bent on ratting him out that she doesn’t think about how hurt their mom might feel about their actions. Yet the siblings are more thoughtless than bad, coming to tears when their mom informs them how much it will cost for the appeal. Jamal’s mom isn’t perfect, sometimes too tired to notice what they wear or eat. At the same time, one of the reasons for all her work hours is that she’s trying to both provide for the family and pay for that appeal. I also like Tito, who in one breath tries to convince Jamal to throw away the gun given to him by a gang member and in the other breath asks Jamal if he wants to go to the park for shooting practice. That’s kid-logic for you! Myers has created mostly likable characters, who sometimes make imperfect choices.

What I most appreciate about Scorpions is the gradual way in which Myers intensifies the conflict. There is a perfect beat to how in one page Myers writes about the mundane and the next he ushers readers into a violent world. The first chapter opens with Jamal and his sister quarreling with each other, while they wait for their mom to arrive home. Near the end of that first chapter, we learn about their brother Randy who is in jail. The next chapter turns to a breakfast scene, but also introduces a gang member. With each new chapter, Myers increases our sympathy for Jamal, while also hinting at the tough choices he’ll face in the future. How will Jamal stay out of trouble at school when plagued by a bully? How will he both please his mother and brother, when the one wants him to stay away from gangs and the other wants him to become gang leader? The biggest conflict comes when Jamal is given a gun, which gives him the power to defend himself but also to hurt others.

Some reviewers criticized Myers for his subject matter, because they are unable to relate to a world of gangs, guns, and violence. Despite its multitude of quiet moments, Scorpions isn’t an easy book to read. It’s hard to avoid feeling despair as Jamal tries to avoid bullies and gangs, but finds himself increasingly unable to escape them. The scenes where the family is trying against all odds to raise money to help get Randy out of prison, because he has been knifed by a fellow prisoner, will make you cry. Yet novels are both for reading about worlds that are similar to ours and worlds that we may never enter. I didn’t grow up in Jamal’s world and hope I never have to live in it. The reality though is that many youth do. Myers is a master at writing about the rougher life that some teens face.

If life kept piling trouble upon you, how would you react? None of Myers’s characters face simple choices. Some of them will make decisions that you’ll applaud; others will make ones you will question. To find out what choices Jamal makes and how he lives with them, you’ll need to read Scorpions.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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