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.
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Though his books may sound depressing, Myers says they aren't. "I'm a hopeful guy, so all my stories end up that way. I tuck them all into bed," he says. Take the story "Lockdown." It's about a young man in juvenile detention who feels hopeless about his future as his release nears. He knows his mom is using drugs, and that he may end up right back in jail.Skip to next paragraph
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But he's given an opportunity to work at a senior center, where he meets an older gentleman who tells him how he survived internment in a Japanese war camp. The old man endured by finding something outside himself to love.
The boy listens and has an idea: Once he's out of jail, he will dedicate his life to sending his younger sister to college. At the end of the book he's very hopeful she is going to make it.
"And I think if she makes it, then he'll make it, too," Myers says.
Joan Enders, a high school librarian at Robert A. Long High School outside Seattle, says she's grateful for Myers's work. "The reason I select [his books] ... is they really speak to students having to face extraordinary hardships and a need to make choices," Ms. Enders says.
More than 50 percent of students in her district qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, and she knows many come from difficult living situations. "They need to be buoyed up by stories giving hope," she says.
Myers visited Robert A. Long as part of his national ambassador tour this spring (he makes about two trips a month to speak at schools and community groups). "Reading is not optional," he told a student assembly there.
"A lot of us go 'yea,' of course," Enders says. "But for that student who says 'school doesn't matter,' [Myers's] message and his books are incredibly important."
Reading provides "cheap experience," she says. "You don't have to go out and make a mistake and maybe end up pregnant or in jail. Literature brings an experience to you."
Melissa Johnson, a high school junior, agrees. She normally prefers to read fantasy books because they engage her imagination, she says. But she was happy to find Myers's books "The Beast" and "Sunrise Over Fallujah."
"You could experience what [the characters] were feeling and how lost they were," she says. "That's what made the book. [He] … stepped into their shoes and got inside their heads in a way that the readers were experiencing the same thing. I really got into that."
Myers also conducts collaborative writing projects and leads workshops. He worked with a group of elementary school students in Harlem, N.Y., to write a series of poems, which were illustrated by Myers's artist-son, Christopher.
He also co-wrote a book with a 13-year-old fan, Ross Workman. The teen wrote Myers a letter saying that he liked the way Myers wrote. They collaborated via e-mail: Four years later, the book "Kick" was published.
"I like writing with kids," Myers says.
He also likes teaching. At Robert A. Long he met with about 20 aspiring writers after the assembly, going over how to structure a book, develop characters, and create an engaging plot.
Jakob Collins, a senior, attended the workshop; he said his greatest takeaway was the need to believe in himself and his ideas.
"I asked how to format a book so that you like it, and your readers like it," Jakob says. "He had a really good response: Don't sacrifice your own ideas so readers will like it; because if you believe in something strongly enough, then [readers] will enjoy it, too.' "
Myers, who has book contracts lined up through 2017, says he'd like to be remembered as someone who was "useful."
"I don't think you can ask for more than that," he says.
"There will be some kids who will find a voice in what I'm saying to them," he says. "There will be some whose lives will be validated because I've included them."
• Walter Dean Myers may be contacted through his agent, the Miriam Altshuler Literary Agency (www.miriamaltshulerliteraryagency.com).
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