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At their level: seasoned children's author is at it again.

WALTER DEAN MYERS is no stranger to writing good tales. For more than four decades, he has informed, dazzled and created wonderful real-life stories for readers of all ages, aiming the stories mostly at young adults and using the multicolored population of Harlem as a backdrop.

At the ripe age of 68, Dean Myers has published more than 75 books for children and young adults, as well as short fiction and articles. He has received numerous awards, including the Coretta Scott King Award five times. For his book Monster (Amistad/HarperCollins, May 1999), the story of a 16-year-old boy on trial for a murder, Dean Myers received the first Michael Printz Award for Young Adult literature. Monster was also a finalist for a National Book Award.

"I write about urban settings because you see that there is a negative public image. People use code words like 'inner city' or say things like 'ghetto,' but if you can't feel good about your home and if you never see urban areas depicted as anything but negative, it tells you that where you come from is crap," says Dean Myers.

Dean Myers, who was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia, grew up in Harlem, observing the lifestyle that played out on the very same streets he would one day write about. His parents struggled with their own literacy: his father was unable to read but loved to tell ghost stories, and his mother read True Romance magazine stories to him. By the time he was in the third grade, Dean Myers's reading level was beyond both of theirs.

"I came from a family who told stories. I learned to love language. I do crosswords and word puzzles. I love words and manipulating them," he says.

Words are Dean Myers's medium of helping his readers understand fully the idea of just what the spectrum of growing up in a place like Harlem entails. "During some of my speaking engagements, my audience members have said, 'You were raised in Harlem? Weren't you scared?'" This type of pigeonholing only frustrates and drives Dean Myers to continue teaching his readers what it's all about through his writing, and especially, to cater to the YA black reading audience.

Dean Myers, who now resides in Jersey City, New Jersey, and has incorporated his son, Christopher, to cowrite books, cites James Baldwin's Sunny's Blues as the piece that gave him permission to write about the black experience. "You want to see a book with your experiences. When you don't see your experiences, you don't feel positive about who you are. I believe that it's up to people like me to take the African American experience and humanize it.

"The basic idea of all my writing is to humanize my characters," he says. "No one is just a character, no one is just a drug dealer, no one is just a thief. You have to make sure they're not without doubts and fears."

In his most recent book, Autobiography of My Dead Brother (Amistad/HarperCollins, August 2005), Dean Myers once again tackles the trials that children go through growing up in a harsh urban environment. There is a special message to young men in his work because their experiences impact him deeply.

"You have these young men, aged fourteen and fifteen years old, who don't do drugs and don't commit crimes; and then two years later, they're doing it. The key here is that when you're a child, everything that is going to happen to you is going to happen in the future, then one day they wake up and it's the future. If someone is lucky, they can avoid it by, say, going to college, but if you can't go to college, the future is now."

Dean Myers, however, is more than just an urban fiction writer. In order to reach out to his readers, he has visited many places--from local libraries to correctional facilities where children are placed after infractions--and leveled with audiences about ways to work with and understand their children.

"I tell them to talk with their children and to listen to them. The early developmental skills that parents provide are oftentimes missing because parents are so stressed themselves, and the most single important fact is to be taught the values for success."

Although Dean Myers works to reinforce human values throughout his writing and speaking, he continues to keep things positive for his audience. "The notion that whatever you did, you were responsible for. This has to be taught. I get letters from kids who need help, everyone looks at them as though they don't want to succeed, but that's not the case ... they just don't know how."

Providing stories that embrace the black experience is not a challenge for Dean Myers. As an observer of children for nearly two generations, Dean Myers knows the ins and outs of what matters to them; and rather than to judge them, he reaches out and supports their efforts in a way only he can do. "I notice that many young people love language, too, particularly rap music, which many people dismiss in a negative light. But I think you should be able to use it, to take it and recognize it as something positive."

Grace L. Williams is the editorial and marketing assistant at BIBR.
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Title Annotation:Walter Dean Myers
Author:Williams, Grace L.
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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