Walter Dean Myers writes books troubled teens can relate to
Juvenile book author Walter Dean Myers writes stories troubled teens can identify with. He knows their world because he once was one of them.
When Walter Dean Myers was researching "Monster," his book about a teenager in juvenile detention, he conducted interviews with everyone from teen inmates to prison guards. But it was his conversation with a defense lawyer that really resonated.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"He said the most difficult part of his job was to humanize his [teenage] client in the eyes of the jury," Mr. Myers says. "And I realized, it's the same for me."
Today Myers is traveling the country as the 2012 Library of Congress national ambassador for young people's literature, promoting literacy and starting candid conversations about what he describes as "a real crisis": More and more kids – especially those from poor and minority families – can't read.
He encourages adults to become mentors and parents and others to read to children. But his books exemplify another important idea: To get kids and teens reading, create characters they can identify with.
"These kids are looking for welcoming stories," Myers says. "But when they read a book, so often it's not about their lives. If what I read doesn't reflect my life – whether I'm gay or Latino or on welfare – doesn't that really mean that my life is not valuable?"
Tall and casually dressed in light jeans and an untucked, green-collared shirt, Myers sits in a large leather chair at his home in New Jersey. Three large, wooden bookshelves take over the office wall behind him. He frequently pushes himself out of his seat to walk across the room and pull one of his many books off the shelf.
The author of 104 children's and young adult books, Myers doesn't write your average teen drama. Prom queen characters are replaced by high school dropouts or young soldiers, vampires by children growing up in single-parent homes.
"With my writing, what I want to do is humanize the young people I write about," Myers says. There are 2 million kids in the United States who live below the poverty line, and 5 million who have had someone in their family go to jail.
Kids and teens from troubled backgrounds look for characters like themselves in books, Myers says. They "want to read these stories, because they want to know they're going to be OK," he says.
Myers knows the audience he wants to reach: He was once a part of it. Growing up as a foster child in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City, Myers dropped out of high school at age 17 and joined the Army. An uncle was killed when Myers was still a teen, which set off a series of heartbreaking events in his foster home, which included adults who dealt with alcoholism and depression. "My family disintegrated," Myers says.
But when he felt overwhelmed by problems at home or in his neighborhood, Myers says, "I could turn to books. I could move myself away."
He always liked to write, and teachers told him he was bright. Three years after joining the Army he started writing for magazines. It was "a small hobby," he says, writing after work and taking workshops. He got into writing for young people, in part, because it gave him an opportunity to explore what he had gone through as a teen.
"When my family fell apart, it was such a troubled part of my life.... I think I could understand what I was going through, but I didn't have the vocabulary for it," he says while flipping through the pages of a book. Writing for teens as an adult "felt natural," Myers says. "My young adult stuff was genuine."
Today, he writes five to nine pages every day, five days a week, every week. When asked about retirement, he says, "I've decided [retirement] means I just send back the checks….
"I'll never live to write all the stories I have in my head," he says, laughing and tapping his thigh with the paperback book in his hands.
Some people tell Myers his books are too gritty (his 1988 award-winning novel "Fallen Angels," inspired by his younger brother, a soldier who was killed on his first day in Vietnam, has been banned in some schools due to its language and vivid portrayal of war).
Making a Difference