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NEW YORK (AP) - It began as a competition between sixth-grader Jailen Swinney and a friend: Who could read a book faster?
But after finishing Walter Dean Myers‘ “Monster,” a classic young adult novel about a teen on trial for being an accomplice to murder, Swinney had done more than win a race. She had discovered a book whose characters had similar experiences to people she knew.
“It opened my eyes,” Swinney says. “It relates to many people and their families, friends who go through that with their family members.”
Some fellow sixth-graders at The Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy, a charter school in Manhattan, are also Myers fans. Devon Johnson likes “Slam,” calling it “a real world situation” about a basketball guard living in a harsh neighborhood. Elijah Blades has read “Game,” the story of a high schooler conflicted between sports and academics.
“It talked about stuff I wanted to know, like basketball, what’s going on in the streets these days and how hard it is to get into college,” says Blades, seated with his schoolmates at a small table in the school’s library.
Among the kids at the Promise Academy and around the country, Walter Dean Myers is a must-read whose books have sold millions of copies and have a special appeal for the toughest of people to reach, boys. He is able, like few writers, to relate to his readers as they live today.
And he is old enough to be their grandfather.
Myers, 73, has written dozens of novels, plays and biographies. He has received three National Book Award nominations and won many prizes, including a lifetime achievement honor from the American Library Association and five Coretta Scott King awards for African-American fiction. He is also the most engaged of writers, spending hours with young people at schools, libraries and prisons, giving talks and advice on life and work, his own rise from high-school dropout to best-selling author, a story that translates across generations.
“I had an advantage in that I lived through all this stuff and have been able to think about it and to consider it. Why did I go in one direction, while these kids may or may not go in that direction,” the tall, soft-spoken Myers, a resident of Jersey City, N.J., said during an earlier interview at a nearby Harlem library he visited often as a child, where the biggest change apparently is that the stairs seem steeper.
Myers‘ books are usually narrated by teenagers trying to make right choices when the wrong ones are so much more available. They’re the 17-year-old hiding from the police in “Dope Sick,” or the boarding school student in “The Beast” who learns his girlfriend is hooked on drugs. He is careful not to make judgments, and in “Monster,” even leaves doubt over whether the narrator committed the crime.
“He does a great job of engaging teens because he writes about things they want to read about, whether it’s going off to war or surviving the streets,” says Kimberly Patton, president of the Young Adult Library Services Association and a librarian for teens at the Kansas City Public Library in Kansas City, Mo. “He doesn’t talk down to teens. He always reaches teens on their level.”
Kids love to check his work out from libraries, but libraries don’t always carry his books. “Fallen Angels,” a million-selling novel about a Vietnam soldier, appears occasionally on the American Library Association’s annual list of books most criticized by parents and other members of the community. School districts in Indiana, Kansas and Mississippi have banned “Fallen Angels” for everything from violence to explicit language.
“I think it’s silly. People don’t understand that by withholding information from people, you hurt them. You’re not protecting them,” Myers says.
“I think people don’t want books depicting black life, unless it’s a certain kind. For example, you can have a young black kid who is very sassy and that’s fine, especially if he’s being raised by white people. But if you have a relationship in which there are black people, black youngsters who are unsure of themselves who use language in a certain way, curse a lot, they will ban it in a heartbeat.”
One of five siblings, he was born Walter Milton Myers in Martinsburg, W.Va., in 1937. His mother died when he was 18 months old and Walter was sent up to Harlem and raised in a foster home by Herbert (a janitor) and Florence Dean (a cleaning woman and factory worker). In honor of his foster parents, he writes under the name Walter Dean Myers.
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