What is America? What does it mean to be an American? And what is the responsibility that comes with pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States of America? Walter Dean Myers explores these questions and more in his book We Are America, illustrated by his son, Christopher Myers.

Like the Myers’ previous collaboration Harlem, this picture book demonstrates that America is more than a place, it is a state of being, constantly changing, but with a history that shapes the future of its people.

Find more great poetry & verse among our 2011 Best Books for Children.

How did this project evolve?

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After 9/11, which was more or less a wake-up call for all of us, the first reaction was grief for all the people lost, then anger. But then there was this wave of patriotism where people were identifying who was American and who wasn’t. When I saw that, I thought, “They’re not including me. They’re not including most people of color, different genders and what have you.” I took a hard look and said, “That’s my fault to a large extent.” I had become this left-of-center dude, who was too cool for anything that could be labeled “patriotism.” It’s almost as if I were a teenager living in a house, loving the house, loving everything in the house, but too cool to admit it. I wanted to take responsibility for being an American. 

What form did that take?

[When I wrote the book,] I used only my words at first. But then I began to reread the Federalist Papers and [other documents from the Founding Fathers], statements from Hamilton and Jefferson. I thought, “Some of this stuff I can’t say better.” I also wanted to use [those documents] as a reference, because we need to bring young people to the idea that there were people thinking about these things and understanding them. They were trying to form the most wonderful country that had ever existed. Yet they also knew that to do this, you have to make some compromises. 

You’ve said that the Founding Fathers knew this would be "an imperfect union struggling toward perfection."

I’d read those documents half a century ago as a teenager. But now I have a much better idea of history than I did as a young person. When I looked at these documents, I thought, “They’re forming these documents at great risk to themselves, and they’re doing it with great trepidation.” They put themselves on the line politically and personally. They knew that what they did was going to be judged for many, many years. There were things that were compromises, such as slavery. Had those compromises not been accommodated, we might not have a country.

During the Constitutional Convention, they closed and locked the doors. There was no blood, no bruising, but you can see within the Federalist Papers all the give and take. One of the things many young people don’t understand is that the rest of the world is not like America. You can say what you wish. You can worship as you wish. You can stand up and be counted. We have that freedom. This is why people are coming here.

You make passing mention in the poem of events such as the battle at Wounded Knee, the capture of Chapultepec Castle during the Mexican-American War—and for the quotations, you give just enough explanation in the endnotes to give readers a context for the poem’s references. Is it your hope that young people will use your book as a springboard to find out more about our history?

Absolutely. Christopher [Myers] said that the formation of the country came from the conversation between great minds about what our country should be. One of the things we’ve lost over the last decade and a half is public conversation that’s not simply ranting. I would like to see this conversation begin again. I think the way to begin it is to have young people—and older people—look up some of these references and begin to understand what the references are. We should all have that kind of background, and if we don’t, then we have a problem. 

What did you think of Christopher’s paintings when you first saw them? Did any of them surprise you?

In his depiction of different Americans, he used more modern people than I thought he would. He always juxtaposed different historical periods, and that was interesting. Protest is protest, but he showed it back in the day, and then a more modern protest. I think it takes getting used to, and it takes understanding. Kids are going to need guides—parents and teachers working with them on some of these. It’s good to look at the book now and have an understanding, but there’s so much more there in the references and in the pictures, if someone is willing to guide them.

With both Harlem, which you also worked on with your son Christopher as the artist, and also We Are America, the place becomes a character. You’ve called it a state of mind or a state of being as much as a physical place. Can you describe what that means for you?

I just got an e-mail from Luxembourg about [my novel for teens] Motown and Didi. The book is called Harlem Blues in French over there. She wrote asking what Harlem was like. I tried to explain it’s a wonderful place because my family was there and what have you, and how important it is for me to represent Harlem in a very positive manner. When I represent Harlem in a positive manner, I represent Black life in a positive manner. Kids write to me and say, “Thank you for writing this, it’s just like where I live.” It becomes a state of mind for people. I was at a Department of Education event for history teachers this week. They said the same thing—the fact that I write about Harlem makes children wherever they are in New York feel better about themselves. That’s what I hope for America. You don’t have to wave a flag, but you have to understand what rights you have as an American and how those rights were developed and hashed out. Every child should know this.

What has been the reaction to the book so far?

I’ve had some very fine reactions. When I was in Naperville, Ill., these kids all did posters about what it meant to them to be American. It was very touching. To see a whole wall of this, and kids explaining to their teachers and to each other what it meant to be American. For most of these kids, it was the first time they’d ever considered the question. That was an extremely good feeling for me.