All the Right Stuffby Walter Dean Myers, 2012
Paul DuPree figures that working in a soup kitchen over the summer isn't a bad gig, especially since he gets to mentor a kid on Friday mornings. Little did he know that there's more to just throwing some ingredients together because someone has got to eat it, and the kid he's mentoring, 17-year-old Keisha, has a toddler girl of her own, and she wants to improve her hoops, not her grades. Paul meets Elijah in the Soup Emporium, who educates him about the social contract, a philosophical construction of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. People who are in jail, Elijah tells him, "wipe their feet on the social contract."
Paul wonders why Keisha has a 2-year-old daughter when she's still a teen, but Keisha informs him of the difficulty of dealing with parental arguing in the house, lack of a room to study in, and then she informs him that she no longer needs his basketball expertise. Why? She says that the college will accept her if it wants to; she is too depressed and hopeless to continue the basketball lessons. Paul puts the social contract into action by using Keisha's daughter CeCe and explains what Keisha will be teaching her if she quits in life.
Carpe diem — Latin for "Seize the day."
All the Right Stuff by Walter Dean Myers
After hearing Walter Dean Myers speak at the 2012 School Library Journal's Day of Dialog, I was inspired to revisit his work and read more of his books. I was surprised and delighted to see that he is still writing fantastic books at the age of 74. I have heard Myers speak before, and I think that I may have heard some of the comments he made at other presentations, but they are definitely worth repeating here.
Reading Levels on the Decline: Myers mentioned that the reading and writing levels of kids have dropped over the years. He used to be able to determine what age and grade level a kid was at simply by looking at the sophistication, or lack thereof, of the writing style. Nowadays, he cannot separate the letters from the elementary kids from the letters of the high school kids. He says that adults constantly tell kids that they need to read to succeed and get ahead in life, and that the kids concur and know what the right answers are. However, Myers said, unfortunately, the kids do not believe it, as is evidenced by the school dropout rate and the lack of reading and writing skills in even older kids, like teenagers. He said that he meets 25-year-old and 30-year-old people today who are not literate.
I was somewhat shocked by this, but I probably should not have been, since I am well aware that the high school graduation rate in many areas of the Bronx and other parts of New York City is around 50 percent. I was also saddened and dismayed by the fact that kids will tell us what we want to hear, and we may tell them to read and study, but kids do not believe in it. That is what I have said to classes to attempt to get kids engaged with reading. If that does not work, how are we going to get through to them? What can we say and/or do to help kids succeed in life?
What Makes a Survivor? Myers mentioned that he grew up as a poor kid in Harlem, and he often wondered why he was able to emerge from the upbringing and obtain a better life for himself. He spoke of an author who studied why some concentration camp inmates survived the Holocaust and others did not. The author formed the conclusion that the survivors were able to mentally remove themselves from the horrible situation and find light, happiness, and hope somewhere. Myers speaks at many juvenile detention centers to get kids motivated to read and improve their lives.
I have heard before that kids do not like to read. However, my experience volunteering in the Boys and Girls Club in Brooklyn in 2001 did not bear that out, probably because the kids wanted to have my attention. There were a group of five or six elementary-age kids who would read picture books together with me. I asked if they wanted to read, and they knew that I valued and liked reading. They took turns reading; they did not want to be passive participants and listen to me read. I was delighted that they were so involved with developing their literacy skills. They argued over the books; if one child read a page with few words, he or she would say that he or she deserved an extra page to read. The kids were delightful.
Couldn't Put it Down:All the Right Stuff. I'll have to admit that I was very impressed with this book. I found it riveting, in fact. Most books today do not capture my attention like that. (However, I did quite like the historical fiction and horsey flair of Firehorse by Diane Lee Wilson.) I was fascinated by the philosophy of All the Right Stuff, and that the vast majority of the book took place in a soup kitchen and consisted of conversation between a youngster and Elijah, who was not just making soup, he was improving the lives of his clientele. I like the critical thinking that is inherent in philosophy, and I actually tutored a guy named Prince in philosophy while we were undergraduates.
How do you get ahead in life? Teenager Paul DuPree has witnessed all manner of schemes in his Harlem neighborhood—including a lot of bad ones. The kind of bad ones that left his father dead. But Paul’s in for a surprise this summer thanks to Elijah, the soup man, who opens Paul’s eyes to a new way of viewing himself, and his responsibilities to others.
All the Right Stuff is, admittedly, a little heavy-handed on the sermonizing, but there’s something to be said for an author who’s willing to tackle the tough issues, and to get teens (and all readers) thinking hard about the choices they make.
Behind the Scenes
There are very few authors who can take a philosophical idea and turn it into a story you’ll actually want to read.
In All the Right Stuff, Walter Dean Myers proves that he’s one of the few who can.
High-schooler Paul didn’t expect philosophical discourse to define his summer, but when he shows up to the Harlem soup kitchen for seniors, proprietor Elijah I. Jones makes it clear that Paul’s not merely there to chop onions.
Instead, Paul’s summer of learning to make a mighty fine soup is also characterized by discussion about the social contract—in other words, that “you’re supposed to act in a certain way and receive a certain benefit.”
This can be pretty heavy stuff, though Myers serves it up the same way Elijah does his soup: with a generosity of spirit that keeps people coming back for more. It’s clear that Myers cares deeply about his subject matter—and he wants his readers to as well.
Does All the Right Stuff get a little heavy-handed at times? Yeah, it does. But it also offers something that not much YA literature does these days: a chance to think.