The local barbershop has long been a meeting place for African-American men to unwind, banter and give advice away from the all-seeing eyes of women. In Walter Dean Myers' warm, wise and gently humorous new novel, Handbook for Boys, it's a place of mentoring as well. Thanks to his hot temper, Jimmy Lynch has gotten himself into a bit of trouble in school. Duke, the proprietor of the nearby barbershop, takes the boy under his wing to keep him out of a juvenile facility. With another boy named Kevin, he does odd jobs and listens to the freely but thoughtfully given advice of the fatherly Duke and his pal, the irrepressible Cap, an ex-courtroom guard who thinks he has seen everything. Also on hand are a parade of other men, some wise and some foolish, including the philosophical Mr. M.; Pookie, whose wife has caused him to be evicted; and Peter the Grape, a millionaire who comes into the shop for a fade and a bit of gossip. All impart their own musings about work, respect, sex and success. Myers, an award-winning author whose previous novels include Monster and Scorpion, is adept at creating memorable, believable characters. The patient and compassionate Duke may teeter on the edge of saintliness, but in Myers' hands he remains human enough to remind you of someone you know, like a favorite uncle or the guy who really does run the barbershop on the corner. Cap is often barbed-tongued, and Kevin, an honor student before he was busted for smoking marijuana, has the smugness of a boy who knows too much for his own good, even though he too is someone the reader cares about. Jimmy, who narrates the story, is the real gem. He's 16 and, though close to six feet tall, still retains much of a little boy's sweetness and innocence. Myers captures both the naivete and the zesty, not quite cynical speech of a smart city kid trying to appear tougher than he is. Myers' Harlem, with its parks, colorful characters, energy and jagged-edged beauty, is one that anyone who has spent a bit of time there will recognize.
Handbook for Boys is a great book for kids not just boys ages 10 and up.