We Are America: A Tribute From the Heart by Walter Dean Myers, Ill. by Christopher Myers

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Bibliography

Myers, Walter Dean. We Are America: A Tribute from the Heart. Ill. by Christopher Myers. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2011. ISBN 9780060523084

(Hardback with audio CD)

Plot Summary

Walter Dean Myers presents a collection of poems illustrated by his son, Christopher Myers, that tell the story of America. The poems describe the people, events, places, and ideals that make up our great country. This collection is the Myers’ tribute to the spirit of the country.

Critical Analysis

The free verse poems in Myers’ book all carry an easy, smooth rhythm created by the arrangement of short lines interspersed with longer lines of text and the strategic placement of commas throughout the poetry. There are no rhymes in these poems, but Myers still manages to employ other literary devices. He displays an example of consonance with “A chorus of chaos filling the air” and an example of assonance with “Flat plains that absorbed the warm summer rains”.

Myers relies mostly on personification, similes, and metaphors, to create grand images in the reader’s mind. He writes of a time before America was discovered, when the ships’ “white sails ablaze/against the clear blue sky” as witnessed by a Lakota Indian whose “grandmother/stitched the giving earth/to the distant sky”. He goes on to describe the discovering of America and its “Canyons that swallowed the imagination/And freedom/Freedom like water on the tongues of thirsting men/Freedom as sweet as young love”. He talks about how freedom lived “In my heart/Like an eagle/Longing to fly” and how “We were the youth that could not fail”. Myers also uses repetition of  words and phrases to assign importance and to create the ebb and flow of his verse: “And still, and still…”, “And yet, and yet…”. The phrases “freedom dream” and “we are America” are also repeated throughout the book. One more literary tool that Myers uses near the end of the book strikes a particularly deep chord. He juxtaposes a few of the great things about our country with their opposites, reminding us how we are “Wealthy beyond belief/and not wealthy/The land of equal opportunity/and not equal/The land of justice/and injustice.” In the audio recording, the first half of each of these is read by a single person. The second, “and not” lines, are read by a chorus of voices, suggesting that the positive side of these things is only true for a small minority, while that majority still struggle for wealth, equality, and justice.

The audio version of this book really serves to deepen the emotion felt while reading these poems. Several voices in unison combine to read the repeated phrase of “We are America” as well as other lines and phrases. The reader really gets a sense of the community of our country while listening to the audio recording. Myers uses plenty of sensory words and vivid phrases to enrich the experience such as “burned”, “taut bow of anticipation”, “we danced a youthful dance”, “stumbled as we invented our own truths”, “learned to light the darkness/with the blazing torch”, and “sweet taste of liberty”. These words and phrases are effective on paper, but are captivating and inspiring when paired with the audio version. The reader is left with an ache at the realization that our country still has strides to make, but there is also the hope and the promise of liberty and of the idea of America and all for which that stands. The real strong point of the audio recording is the ethnic and gender diversity of the artists who lend their voices. This melting pot of voices mirrors the melting pot of America.

Christopher Myers adds beautiful illustrations in rich, bold colors of the history of America and her people. There are notes at the end of book describing the events and people found in the images, but they are referenced by page number and there are no page numbers on the book. The notes would be slightly more helpful if this issue was cleared up. There are also extensive notes on the quotations used throughout the book and a note from the author and illustrator explaining the background for the project.

This is a visually appealing book that is enjoyable on its own, but pairing it with the audio recording takes it to another level. It makes you remember where this country started and makes you hopeful that it can find its way back to those roots.

Review Excerpts

Audie Award

( NOMINATED FOR AN AWARD in 2013 )

“…the Myers grapple with the meaning of the country’s founding principles. They pair big ideas with specific individuals (real or imagined) culled from a wide swath of peoples. The imagery is beautifully crafted, and the tone allows space for readers to draw conclusions; while acknowledging imperfections, Myers reserves judgment.” — School Library Journal, May 2011

“The promise and potential of America are explored with a quotation (credited in the notes), poem, and mural-like painting on each spread.” — Horn Book Guide, October 2011

“…pays homage to the entire United States in a soul-searching, free-verse poem examining the people, ideals, and promise of America. The verse journeys along a rough historical chronology…Christopher Myers’s evocative paintings often juxtapose different eras; a scene in which a firefighter turns his hose on a group of African-Americans melds into the Boston Tea Party.” — Publishers Weekly, March 2011

“Across the spread from each poem are Christopher Myers’ colorful paintings, which incorporate references in the lyrical lines. The appended back matter includes more information about the quotations, along with notes about the artwork.” — Booklist, May 2011

“The sweeping scope of Myers’s free verse poems (HarperCollins, 2011) is captured beautifully and interpreted dramatically on this CD by a diverse cast of narrators. This eminently patriotic book celebrates free expression and attempts to paint with word pictures the depth and breadth of the varied American experience. Rarely are all ethnicities given voice in a treatise on American freedom, liberty, and values, but the panorama of people who built America is well represented here. In fact, the book alone, without the CD, falls flat with its oddly-proportioned, crowded murals in a sea of white space. It is only with the soaring music, stirring sound effects, and talented team of multicultural readers that this book’s meaning and powerful purpose come to life.” — School Library Journal, February 2013

Connections

Read other poetry books by Walter Dean Myers:

  • Jazz ISBN 9780823421732
  • Here in Harlem ISBN 9780823422128
  • Looking Like Me ISBN 9781606840016
  • Harlem ISBN 9780590543408

Read other patriotic picture books:

  • I Pledge Allegiance by Bill Martin Jr. and Michael Sampson, Ill. by Chris Raschka, ISBN 9780763625276
  • Veterans: Heroes in Our Neighborhood by Valerie Pfundstein, Ill. by Aaron Anderson, ISBN 9780578135106

Have students pick one of the historical events or people in Myers’ book and do a mini research project on it.

Have students pick from a list of events and people not included in the book and create their own free verse poem on the topic.

Have students volunteer to share about family members or friends who are veterans.

Have students pick one of the poems and create their own original illustration for the poem.

Discuss each illustration and have children participate in looking up information about the events taking place in the illustrations.

Pair the students up and have them practice reading one of the poems out loud to each other.

Play the audio recording of the book after reading the book aloud to the students and have them compare and contrast the two. Discuss whether or not students would have selected the same background music and sounds for the recording.

(Image from Amazon.com, accessed February 23, 2015. Cover art by Christopher Myers.)


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