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.
"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).
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.
"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).