March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Paying Homage to Walter Dean Myers | Listen In

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“Reading is not optional,” Walter Dean Myers famously stated in his role as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. And yet, for many students, reading is a struggle. He wrote about the most difficult time in his own life—his teenage years—and often said that he created books that he wished had been available when he was a teen. Audiobooks are another option for these students, a means of opening a door to new discoveries and a bridge to building literacy skills.

The following audiobooks—from Sharon Creech’s loving demonstration of Myers’s profound effect on writers of all races to Kekla Magoon’s harrowing story of racial injustice to the exuberant work of Myers’s son, Christopher—showcase the exceptional stories made possible by the groundbreaking work of a man whose life was changed by reading and writing.

And don’t forget to listen to the beautiful and deeply moving Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices (Live Oak Media, 2010), featured in April 2014’s Listen In column.


early elementary

CREECH, Sharon. Love That Dog. 1 CD. 35 min. HarperAudio. 2006. $13.95. ISBN 9780060852788.

Gr 2-4 –A third grader with no use for poetry, Jack’s interest is finally piqued when his savvy teacher introduces him to Myers’s poem, “Love that Boy.” Scott Wolf captures the tenor of third-grade conversation with spot-on pacing and inflection as Jack shifts from contempt to appreciation and from nonwriter to poet in this free-verse paean to Myers’s work.

SHANGE, Ntozake. Coretta Scott. 1 CD with tr book. 6 min. Weston Woods. 2009. $29.95. ISBN 9780545623858.

Gr 1-4 –Here is an example of an excellent audio production elevating an already outstanding book. Shange’s affecting poems reveal the life of civil rights icon Coretta Scott King, and Phylicia Rashad’s gentle performance evokes King’s personality. The recording also includes the freedom song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” which sweeps listeners up in the emotional tide of the Civil Rights Movement and King’s enormous contribution to it. A reading of the author’s note on track three offers more information about the activist and her work, proving that informational text, so prominently featured in the Common Core State Standards, can be conveyed in a nontraditional format.

SMITH, Charles R., Jr. Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson. 1 CD with tr book. 14 min. Live Oak Media. 2011. $29.95. ISBN 9781430109747.

Gr 1-5 –Before Muhammad Ali and Joe Lewis, there was Jack Johnson. Smith’s rhythmic text combines with Shane Evans’s bold paintings and Dion Graham’s powerful narration to tell the story of the first black heavyweight boxing champion. The son of slaves, Johnson learned to fight by standing up to bullies and refusing to comply with the social conventions of his time. Music and sound effects round out this introduction to an African American champion.

middle grade

CURTIS, Christopher Paul. Bud, Not Buddy. 5 CDs. 5:15 hrs. Listening Library. 2002. $45. ISBN 9780807210451.

Gr 4-7 –Ten-year-old Bud is facing a dismal foster home at the height of the Great Depression, so he decides to escape and search for his absent father. Listeners sense the hardship, prejudice, and resilience of this optimistic young boy. History, humor, and first-rate characterization set this title apart, while the narration by James Avery gives the story its due with fine voicing, pacing, and emotional inflection. A companion title, The Mighty Miss Malone (Random, 2012), features a young girl Bud meets on his travels.

CURTIS, Christopher Paul. Elijah of Buxton. 8 CDs. 9 hrs. Listening Library. 2008. $55. ISBN 9780739364154.

Gr 6-8 –Basing this novel on true events occurring in a Canadian settlement founded by runaway slaves, Curtis employs wit and spirit to tell the story of Elijah Freeman, the first free-born child in Buxton. Mirron Willis, whose vocal interpretations convey the full range of emotions, gives each character a culturally authentic voice. This audio is further enhanced by an afterword from the author, who shares an eloquent description of the history of the Buxton settlement.

FLAKE, Sharon. Pinned. 4 CDs. 5 hrs. Listening Library. 2013. $38. ISBN 9780385361132.

Gr 5-9 –Autumn, the only girl on the high school wrestling team, is a champion on the mat and in the kitchen, but she struggles to read. Adonis, who manages the wrestling team, was born without legs and is a driven scholar. With nothing in common, both are astonished when Autumn falls in love with Adonis, who initially does not reciprocate her affection. Bahni Turpin as Autumn and Dominic Hoffman as Adonis breathe life into these characters, one buoyant and the other aloof, allowing listeners to understand what motivates each of them. Teens will enjoy the satisfying resolution of this complicated relationship.

MYERS, Christopher. H.O.R.S.E.: A Game of Basketball and Imagination. 1 CD with tr book. 11 min. Live Oak Media. 2014. $29.95. ISBN 9781430117445.

Gr 3-6 –Text, illustrations, and narration integrate here in a striking way, making this read-along audiobook a true delight. The tandem voicing lifts the rhythmic text to a higher level as the author and Dion Graham banter. From the jazzy background music to the just-right placement of sound effects, daring basketball shots have never been so much fun. Myers’s pastel and photo-collage illustrations, the innovative blending of free verse, and the building of an outrageous game of basketball will entice listeners to write, play, and think. A wonderful marriage of words, sportsmanship, music, and pictures make this audio experience a pleasure.

MYERS, Walter Dean. Jazz. 1 CD with tr book. 43 min. Live Oak Media. 2007. $29.95. ISBN 9781430100225.

Gr 3-7 –This winner of the inaugural Odyssey Award combines art forms—poetry, music, painting, and impeccable audio production—and exemplifies the power of the audiobook experience. Expressive language, Christopher Myers’s striking acrylic-and-ink paintings, and extraordinary original music by Chris Kubie combine with rhythmic performances by narrators James “D-Train” Williams and Vaneese Thomas. This is a fine tribute to a uniquely American musical genre. The historical information in the introduction, paired with the reading of the glossary, makes this a superb introduction to jazz for students.

WILLIAMS-GARCIA, Rita. One Crazy Summer. 5 CDs. 5:15 hrs. Recorded Bks. 2010. $46.75. ISBN 9781449821968.

Gr 4-7 –In the summer of 1968, 11-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters are excited and nervous as they travel from Brooklyn, NY, to Oakland, CA, to visit the mother who abandoned them seven years earlier. Their mother, however, shares none of their excitement and sends them off each day to a Black Panther community center where they discover that, unlike their father and grandmother, not all African Americans are content with the status quo. Sisi Aisha Johnson’s narration delineates the large cast of characters with superb pacing and inflection. Listeners will feel as though they are right there with Delphine as she learns how to fit into her community and society.

WOODSON, Jacqueline. Peace, Locomotion. 2 CDs. 2 hrs. Brilliance Audio. 2009. $39.97. ISBN 9781423397991.

Gr 4-6 –Lonnie (aka “Locomotion”) tells his story through eloquent letters to his little sister, Lili. They live in separate foster homes, and Lonnie recounts his memories of when their parents were alive as he shares his thoughts and aspirations in spare, lyrical language. Dion Graham’s deep and comforting voice gives the words their own vibrant imagery and meaning. Listeners will be drawn into Lonnie’s descriptions of school and everyday events as he grapples with his situation and his hopes for the future.

young adult

Draper, Sharon. Romiette and Julio. 8 CDs. 9:30 hrs. Recorded Bks. 2003. $87.75. ISBN 9781402573910.

Gr 7 Up –Sisi Aisha Johnson turns in authentic portrayals of the African American and Latino characters in this modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic tale of forbidden love. Romiette Cappelle and Julio Montague must negotiate the pitfalls of interracial dating, facing the disapproval of their families as well as a dangerous high school gang. A powerful, thoughtful, and ultimately uplifting look at ethnic prejudice.

Johnson, Angela. The First Part Last. 2 CDs. 2:24 hrs. Listening Library. 2004. $24. ISBN 9781400091157.

Gr 9 Up –Khalipa Oldjohn’s compelling, earnest narration pulls listeners into this account of the consequences of teen parenthood from the father’s perspective. Alternating between “now,” as Bobby struggles to raise his daughter by himself, and “then,” when Bobby first learned that his girlfriend, Nia, was going to have a baby, this complex 2004 Printz Award winner will leave listeners spellbound.

MAGOON, Kekla. The Rock and the River. 6 CDs. 7 hrs. Brilliance Audio. 2010. $69.97. ISBN 9781441858658.

Gr 7 Up –Sam’s life as the son of a respected Chicago civil rights leader is rocked when his older brother joins the Black Panthers following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. After witnessing the unprovoked police beating of a friend, Sam attends Panther meetings with his brother, but cannot determine which path to take for himself—nonviolence or revolution. Dion Graham’s reading portrays the members of this community with unerring pacing, tone, and inflection. His narration brings heartbreaking clarity to a story that, unfortunately, could have been ripped from today’s headlines.

Myers, Walter Dean. Dope Sick. 3 CDs. 3:30 hrs. Recorded Bks. 2009. $30.75. ISBN 9781436161404.

Gr 9 Up –An intriguing story about choices and consequences—frequent themes in Myers’s writing—this work follows 17-year-old Lil J, who has made a mess of his life. Accused of shooting a police officer who is clinging to life, Lil J, who was wounded himself, runs into an abandoned building where he encounters the mysterious Kelly, a man with a television that shows not only what’s happening on the street, but also what might happen in Lil J’s future, depending on his choices. J.D. Jackson’s sturdy baritone captures the cadence of street talk, doing justice to the well-drawn realistic characters.

Sharon Grover is head of youth services at the Hedberg Public Library, Janesville, WI. Lizette (Liz) Hannegan was a school librarian and the district library supervisor for the Arlington (VA) Public Schools before her retirement.

This article was published in School Library Journal's October 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. Kathy Ishizuka Kathy Ishizuka says:

    I snapped this photo of Walter when he came to the SLJ offices to record our very first podcast, a series for poetry month. We were about to record – we were all anxious, I think – and he hesitated for a bit. I asked if he needed anything, some water. “I have a speech impediment,” he replied. “And every time I’m about to speak, I become very self-conscious.” It’s a beautiful recording, which I enjoyed so much I’ve kept on my phone ever since. That turned out to be a good thing; mine was the one copy we had, as SLJ’s audio archives were lost when the magazine was migrated to another platform.
    A sweet, gentle man and a giant in the field. A nice tribute.