Written by Walter Dean Myers
Scholastic, 2010 126pp.
Youth can be motivated to engage in social action that affects the learning community within their schools. The eighth-grade students at the DaVinci Academy for the Gifted and Talented are role-playing in a unit on the Civil War, The four students who call themselves “The Cruisers” are once again in trouble for low academic performance. Although the assistant principal would prefer to kick them out of school, the principal has another idea. She instructs her assistant to assign the Cruisers the role of serving as peacemakers between students who are taking the part of Union sympathizers and those who are Confederate sympathizers. The Cruisers’ tenure at DaVinci Academy may depend on their successfully brokering a peace.
African American students are a minority at this prestigious Harlem middle school; three of the Cruisers, including their leader Zander Scott, are African American. When the “Sons of the Confederacy” (white athletes) write a guest editorial in the school newspaper, the Cruisers take offense and call them out on the racist implications of their writing. After conducting a bit of research (and finally reviewing their social studies assignments), the Cruisers print a rebuttal in their own publication, The Cruiser. The “peacemakers” question the statements of the Sons of the Confederacy on the grounds that people who enslave others cannot claim moral superiority.
Things get out of control. A white student pretends to auction off a “slave” (an African American student) and threats of violence between the Sons and the Cruisers accelerate. One criticism of this book is that school administration would not allow this level of tension between groups of students in the name of free speech or in the pursuit of academic learning. Still, the principals are monitoring the situation and these types of experiences go on in many schools without the watchful eye of the administration.
When tensions further escalate, Zander has an idea for students to wear signs that say “I Have Been Degraded.” The Cruisers print a sarcastic article in which they claim to have come to an agreement with the Sons, agreeing that slaves’ feelings didn’t matter and that their descendants “can still be degraded today within the halls of DaVinci Academy.” The invitation to wear a sign goes viral and many students, from all ethnic and racial backgrounds, wear the signs on campus. When the administration calls off the experiment, the assistant principal holds an assembly and people from both sides have the opportunity to speak. When Zander speaks for the Cruisers, he shows that students on both sides have learned to think about other people’s feelings before they speak or write. Zander wisely includes himself when he notes that people have to own, take responsibility for, what they say. The administrators and social studies teacher feel the unit is a success because students learned about their First Amendment rights and the complexity of the political and social issues surrounding the Civil War. They also learned that all sides in the war became victims of the dehumanization that resulted from the institution of slavery.
Walter Dean Myers, the author of The Cruisers, is known for his authentic and vivid portrayals of the human experience and particularly the experience of African American youth. Among other awards, Myers has earned the Coretta Scott King Author Award and Honor Award five times each. In 1994, Myers earned the Margaret A. Edwards Award for his outstanding contribution to literature for young adults. His memoir, Bad Boy (2002) provides his life story of growing up in Harlem.
The Cruisers can be paired with other young adult books in which students take action within their school communities. In After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick (2010), the entire class stages a protest when Jeffrey is expected to take the 8th-grade exit exam even though he is suffering cognitive challenges, late after effects of cancer treatment. In Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (2010), both boys named Will Grayson motivate their classmates to show their appreciation of a unique individual, the “world’s largest person who is really, really gay.” At the end of Tiny’s school play, the entire school community testifies, “I appreciate you Tiny Cooper.” Penacook student Chris “Bridge” Nicola, the protagonist in Joseph Bruchac’s (2001) Heart of a Chief, leads his social studies inquiry group mates to raise awareness on campus of how Indian names for sports teams demean native students. In Geography Club by Brent Hartinger (2004), gay and bisexual students meet secretly to share their lives and feelings, including the pain of being bullied by classmates and in the end, develop the courage to come out and form a Gay-Straight Alliance Club in their school.
When students read and discuss books in which taking social action is an essential aspect of the plot, readers have opportunities to explore issues of inequity, power, and discrimination. Living through these characters’ experiences, young adult readers may realize their own power and the potential of taking action to improve their world—beginning in the context of their own school learning environment.
Judi Moreillon, School of Library and Information Studies, Texas Woman’s University, Denton, Texas