The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Art Talk with Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers. Photo courtesy of the author

"Reading is not optional." —Walter Dean Myers

When Walter Dean Myers was a teenager, he was so embarrassed by his love of reading that he carried his library books hidden in a paper bag. In a January interview with the New York Times, Myers said, "I felt a little ashamed, having books." Despite this, books anchored Myers throughout a difficult adolescence in Harlem, and later evolved from a source of comfort into a wildly successful career. The author of dozens of children's and young adult books, Myers is celebrated for his frank portrayal of the problems that can derail a young person's life before it ever truly begins: poverty, gang violence, broken homes, drugs. Among his many awards, he is a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, a two-time Newbery Honor recipient, a two-time National Book Award finalist, and the winner of the 2000 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Literature for Young Adults. Most recently, he was named the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, a two-year position chosen by the Library of Congress. I talked with Myers via e-mail about his youth, the country's alarming literacy gap, and how sugarcoating childhood in literature can be a way of dehumanizing readers.

NEA: When did your love affair with books and writing first begin?

WALTER DEAN MYERS: I think it began in the fifth grade when a teacher caught me reading a comic during class. She instantly tore up the comic, but she also said that if I wanted to read in class she would let me borrow her books. East O the Sun, West O the Moon was the first book. I was hooked!

NEA: What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature? What was your reaction when you found out you’d been selected for the position?

MYERS: Most of my writing life I’ve also tried to encourage young people to read. Being appointed National Ambassador gives me a public voice to add to my private efforts. I was thrilled and honored to become National Ambassador and I hope, basically, to be useful to America in changing the reading environment from one which suggests that reading is an attractive addition to one’s life to one that identifies reading as a basic need. "Reading is not Optional" will be my theme song. For the next two years I hope first to encourage families and communities to read with children for the first five years of their lives. I also hope to get mentoring groups to read with older children. What children read is less a concern of mine than the idea of building basic reading proficiency.

NEA: You’ve done a lot of work with juvenile detention centers. In an interview, you once said of the children you met there that, “They're disappointed in their progress, they're disappointed in their possibilities. But they don't know what to do. They don't know how to get out of this [situation].” How can books help an adolescent change course? What can we as a community do to ensure books are reaching those who might benefit from them most?

MYERS: Books can tell a child that her problems are not unique, that her difficulties are more common than she thinks, and that other people have faced and overcome their difficulties. In short, they can show the young reader that what was bothering them in private also bothered someone who has gone on to better things. When children find that my mother was an alcoholic, that my uncle was murdered, that my father suffered from depression and was illiterate, and that I was too ashamed to let my teachers know any of this, they are often relieved to discover the commonness of our feelings. Books can also point out ways of dealing with problems. In Lockdown I have the central character, a young man in a juvenile detention center, look for ways to disengage the egocentric nature of his difficulties, as Viktor Frankl advises in Man’s Search for Meaning. In Monster, I have a young man struggling with the distinctions between legal and moral guilt.

I hope to partner with groups such as First Book, the Links, 100 Black Men, and other already existing groups who have the means to get books to organizations dealing with young people at low or no cost. In short, I am looking for a community effort to move literacy forward.

NEA: You’ve described your own teenage years as a particularly difficult period in your life. What role did books play for you as an adolescent?

MYERS: I loved reading as a teenager and found solace in books. The poverty that I experienced as a thirteen- and fourteen-year-old, the growing recognition that as a black child I would face difficulties that I thought my friends would not, led me to seek books as a refuge from a more difficult world. On the other hand, while I understood books to be transmitters of values, I did not find myself in those books, nor my family or community. In a conversation over lunch with James Baldwin, who lived less than a half-mile from me in Harlem, he echoed my feelings of being isolated from the worlds we found in books. Baldwin fled to Paris. I fled to the Army.

NEA: A few of your books have been banned or challenged because of adult language and what we’ll call “gritty realism.” What is your response to the claim that children should not be exposed to this type of language and content?

MYERS: In doing research for a book I interviewed an older public defense attorney. He told me that his main job was to "humanize" his clients. Prosecutors would make statements such as "people" have the right to be safe, and that "citizens" should be allowed to walk the streets without fear, as if the defendant was not both a "people" and a "citizen." I was very much moved by this and realized that what I wanted to do was to humanize the 15 million Americans under the age of 18 living in poverty, the eight million people under the age of 18 living in our inner cities in which gang violence and drugs are a growing concern, the 100,000 people under the age of 18 living in juvenile detention centers or group homes, and to have them included in our definition of children. I want all children to be able to find books in which their neighborhoods, culture, and family structures are represented. When I hear phrases like "Let children be children" I understand that a significant amount of children are being excluded and, thus, dehumanized.

NEA: Your son Christopher has illustrated several of your picture books. What is your collaborative relationship like?

MYERS: It’s a challenge working with another person, especially a family member. There is the usual artistic tension (which is good) but there is also the family dynamic which can be trying. I respect Chris for his talent, for his intellect, and for his good heart. We usually work out things rather well. Also, I’m glad to see he has a job.

NEA: What is your ideal writing environment, i.e. what time of day, description of your writing space?

MYERS: Ideally, I prefer working in the early morning. I’m fresh, the coffee is good, and my cat is ready to supervise the day’s activity. If I start at five (my normal wake up time) in the morning I get the benefit of seeing the day begin, which always turns me on. I have a tiny space, six feet by seven, that’s jammed with paper, a computer, a printer, and piles of books. The 18-inch ruler is just long enough to flip the light on and off from my chair. I like to be finished my five pages by eight or nine. I try to work five days a week. Then it’s more coffee, a light breakfast, and a walk.

NEA: You are incredibly prolific. Where do you find, or how do you channel, this seemingly endless inspiration for characters and story lines?

MYERS: I love what I do. I’ve always loved books, stories, and making up characters. If you could get inside my head you’d find other characters for which I supply story lines, conflicts, love affairs, etc. I think lots of people have stories, good stories, but most people don’t have the interest or confidence, to formalize them in a novel or short story.

NEA: What advice would you give to an aspiring children’s or YA author?

MYERS: To me, discipline is so important. When I was an editor at Bobbs-Merrill I noted that the people succeeding as writers were those with the most discipline, and rarely those with the most talent. Two well-crafted pages per day, five days per week, can make a career. I think this is about what Hemingway did. I was surprised to see his original manuscripts and saw that he actually counted the words he did each session. Reading is usually a throw-in when writers give advice, but if anyone saw the manuscripts that I receive they would realize that the writers sending them to me don’t read published books.

NEA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

MYERS: Many people are concerned with the differences in wealth between the upper five percent of Americans and the rest of our country. I think a much more serious concern is the differences between people who read well and those who don’t. America is in danger of developing a permanent underclass which is limited not by birth status or color, but by the inability to read proficiently, or to teach reading skills to their children.

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