Walter Dean Myers
“Thinking back to boyhood days, I remember the bright sun on Harlem streets, the easy rhythms of black and brown bodies, the sounds of children streaming in and out of red brick tenements. I remember La Marqueta, in East Harlem, where people spoke a multitude of languages. I remember playing basketball in Morningside Park until it was too dark to see the basket and then climbing over the fence to go home.
“From my foster parents, the Deans, I received the love that was ultimately to strengthen me, even when I had forgotten its source. It was my foster mother, a half-Indian, half-German woman, who taught me to read, though she herself was barely literate. I remember her reading to me every day from True Romance magazine. Eventually, I was able to read magazines or newspapers to her. My father and my grandfather used to tell me stories. My father would tell scary stories. My grandfather’s stories — he was a very religious man — were Old Testament, God’s-gonna-get-ya kind of stories.
“I read a lot of comic books and any kind of thing I could find. One day, a teacher found me. She grabbed my comic book and tore it up. I was really upset, but then she brought in a pile of books from her own library. That was the best thing that ever happened to me.
“Books took me, not so much to foreign lands and fanciful adventures, but to a place within myself that I have been exploring ever since. The public library was my most treasured place. I couldn’t believe my luck in discovering that what I enjoyed most — reading — was free.
“I was a good student in that I could read well, but I was a behavioral problem. I had this very severe speech difficulty, and I arrived in school ready to conquer the world, but no one could understand a thing I was saying. That was very frustrating for me, and I responded by being angry.
“One of my teachers decided that among many of my speech problems, I couldn’t pronounce certain words at all. She thought that if I wrote something, I would use words I could pronounce, so she said, ‘Why don’t you write something yourself? Whatever you choose to write.’ I began writing little poems, and they helped me because of the rhythms. I began to write short stories, too. My writing was about the only thing I was praised for in school.
“By high school, I’d identified my own ‘avenue of value’ as an intellectual, because I couldn’t speak well and had a limited social life. But I knew my family couldn’t afford college for me. So I dropped out of high school at age 15. I was brought back to school, but I dropped out again at 16, and on my seventeenth birthday I joined the Army. When I got out of the army, I didn’t have any skills, I had no confidence, and I had that speech problem. So I loaded trucks. Then I worked in the post office, and I wrote at nights.
“I wrote for magazines, I wrote adventure stuff, I wrote for the National Enquirer, I wrote advertising copy for cemeteries. Then I saw that the Council on Interracial Books for Children had a contest for black writers of children’s books. I won the contest and that was my first book — Where Does the Day Go? Eventually I got into writing for teenagers. Actually, I had done a short story about teenagers. An editor read the story, thought it was the first chapter of a novel, and asked how the rest of it went. That sounded like opportunity banging on my door, so I made up the novel on the spot and I got a contract. That was my first YA book, Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff. It changed my life because I had no real education, and I needed something to validate myself. I needed to find value, and publishing gave me that value.
“I so love writing. It is not something that I am doing just for a living, it is something that I love to do.
“I get up early, between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m. I have a vest that I wear that weighs 20 pounds, and I walk with that about five miles a day. I’ll try to get home by 7:00, shower, and start to work. I try to get ten pages done. Once I do my ten pages, that’s it.
“When I work, what I’ll do is outline the story first. That forces me to do the thinking. I cut out pictures of all of my characters, and my wife puts them into a collage, which goes on the wall above the computer. When I walk into the room I can see the characters, and I just get very close to them. I rush through a first draft, and then I go back and rewrite, because I can usually see what the problems ahead of me are going to be. Rewriting is more fun for me than writing is.
“My ideas come largely from my own background. I write a lot about basketball, and I’ve played basketball for years and years. I was in the army and I wrote Fallen Angels. I lived in Harlem, and I write about Harlem. I’m interested in history, so I write about historical characters in nonfiction.
“If I accomplish what I set out to do, then I’m happy with the book. If I’ve compromised, then I’m unhappy. Ultimately, what I want to do with my writing is to make connections — to touch the lives of my characters and, through them, those of my readers.”
Since winning the contest run by the Council on Interracial Books for Children with his book Where Does a Day Go? in 1969, Walter Dean Myers has supported himself, his second wife, and four children with his very prolific writing in the area of children’s and young adult literature. He volunteers at schools in Jersey City where is presently lives. He received his degree from Empire State College in 1984.
Myers explains his feeling for the young adult novel, “The special place of the young adult novel should be in its ability to address the needs of the reader to understand his or her relationships with the world, with each other, and with adults. The young adult novel often allows the reader to directly identify with a protagonist of similar interests and development.” He is a compassionate, introspective person who believes, “It is this language of values which I hope to bring to my books. . . . I want to bring values to those who have not been valued, and I want to etch those values in terms of the ideal. Young people need ideals which identify them, and their lives, as central . . . guideposts which tell them what they can be, should be, and indeed are.”
Following his success with young adult literature, Meyer has branched out to include topics of nonfiction including black history with his recent Now Is Your Time! and The Righteous Revenge of Artemis Bonner, an 1880’s historical setting. Both have been received with much acclaim.