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Difference Maker

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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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."

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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).

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.

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.

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