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Scorpions: Book Summary & Characters

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson introduces Walter Dean Myers' young adult novel, ''Scorpions.'' After understanding its plot, we'll get to know the characters and learn why critics are divided on the relevance of this Newbery Award-winning novel.

Stereotyped or Authentic?

Critics are divided on the subject of Walter Dean Myers' young adult novel, Scorpions. On the one hand, it's an authentic coming-of-age story. Its diverse cast of characters grapple with poverty, crime, violence, loyalty, and peer pressure.

On the other hand, it's a little dated. Written in 1988, some teachers believe its emphasis on crime in Harlem only reinforces stereotypes about African Americans, Latinos, and life in the inner-city.

Myers, who grew up in Harlem in the 1950s, brings notes of realism to the story. He depicts a gritty, lawless, decaying neighborhood. Despite its age, Scorpions remains relevant for middle-school readers for its portrayal of city life, diversity, and family. This Newbery Award-winning novel offers a realistic portrait of crime and hard decisions, wrapped into a compelling coming-of-age narrative.

A Harlem Gang

Scorpions centers on Jamal Hicks (12), who struggles with school, family obligations, and the pressure to fall into a life of crime. The story takes place in 1980s Harlem, a neighborhood at the north end of Manhattan famous for its African American heritage--and also for its crime.

On the occasions that he does go to school, Jamal's run-ins with terrifying bullies and authoritative teachers, not to mention the imposing and nagging presence of Principal Davidson, make him want to seek shelter. With his older brother, Randy (17), in prison and a family to look out for, Jamal feels like he has the world on his shoulders.

Boys growing up in Harlem
harlem

The novel's main conflict revolves around Jamal's run-ins with the Scorpions, a drug dealing, gun-toting gang that rules the streets of Harlem. Randy wants Jamal to take over his place as leader of the Scorpions. So does Mack, the oldest of the Scorpions after Randy, who attempts to befriend Jamal and initiate him into their ranks. Stripped of leadership, the Scorpions are divided. Some of them follow Mack's lead and warm up to Jamal. Others, including Angel and Indian, disagree that a kid as young as Jamal should take such an important role.

Mack takes matters into his own hands, launching a coup in which Angel is killed and Indian is arrested. Jamal refuses to use the gun Mack gave him, but he can't bring himself to get rid of it, either.

Jamal eventually finds his path: Keep your head down, stay on the right side of the law, and try not to get into trouble. Eventually, with the help of a strong support network, Jamal breaks free of the Scorpions' grip.

A Diverse Cast of Characters

Scorpions bustles with a diverse cast of characters. Jamal's family and friends play lead and supporting roles in the novel.

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