NEW YORK — 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.
As he notes in his memoir, "Bad Boy," published in 2001, Myers had many identities growing up: athlete, reader, fighter, outcast. Nearly 5 feet tall by age 8 and 6 feet at age 12, he was a neighborhood star of the basketball court and stoop-ball games. But he also had a speech impediment so severe that classmates would laugh at him and Myers would lash out in return. He was often in fights, subjected to disciplinary beatings and was occasionally in trouble with the law, such as the time he and some friends sneaked into an empty city bus and drove off. At home, though, he was a different person, happy to read for hours.
"There were two very distinct voices going on in my head and I moved easily between them," Myers writes in his memoir. "One had to do with sports, street life and establishing myself as a male. ... The other voice, the one I had from my street friends and teammates, was increasingly dealing with the vocabulary of literature."
Myers was gifted enough to be accepted to one of Manhattan's best public schools, Stuyvesant, and unsteady enough to drop out. His family had little money and had to support his foster dad's father, unable to live on his own. Too poor to afford proper clothes, too shy to get on with his classmates, unable to keep up with the work, Myers began skipping school for weeks at a time and never graduated.
"I know what falling off the cliff means," he says. "I know from being considered a very bright kid to being considered like a moron and dropping out of school."
He joined the army at age 17 and served three years, "numbing years," he called them, "years of non-growing." When he got out, he tried just about anything. He was a factory worker, a messenger on Wall Street and an employee at a construction site, where a peer's lewd remarks about a young woman walking by so disgusted Myers he decided to quit and take up writing. He contributed to Alfred Hitchcock's mystery magazine and numerous sports publications. When his half- brother Wayne was killed in Vietnam, he wrote a tribute for Essence magazine.
Myers managed to get poetry and short fiction published in literary journals and men's magazines and joined the Harlem Writers Guild, an organization of black writers. His first book – "Where Does the Day Go?" – was published in 1969 after he won a contest for children's literature by people of color.
He had loved reading for much of his life, from Mark Twain to comics to Norwegian fairy tales, but only as an adult did he find books that had people like himself in them. A turning point was James Baldwin's "Sonny Blues," a short story with the kind of setting Myers would use often in his work: a Harlem teacher who worries about the futures of his students, including the title character, a heroin addict.
"Books transmit values," Myers says. "And if you're not in the books, what does that tell you? That tells you you're no longer valuable.
"There was a time I was no longer going to be black. I was going to be an `intellectual.' When I was first looking around for colleges, thinking of colleges I couldn't afford to go to, I was thinking of being a philosopher. I began to understand then that much of my feelings about race were negative.
"The kids I speak with, they don't like themselves, they become defensive. What they see is ...`real life is snappy answers. Everybody has a job. The house is never dirty and my life is a misery.' What's different about it? They come to the conclusion that at least part of it is because they're black, or because they're Latino."
Myers vowed he would write books he wished had been around when he was young. He not only places much of his work in Harlem, but carefully identifies the streets and schools and names of the stores. The plots are often inspired by what he hears when visiting schools and prisons.
"Lockdown," a National Book Award finalist last year, began after Myers met a kid who was afraid to get out of jail because he would only get in trouble again. For "Monster," he remembered a boy who would talk about the crimes he committed in the third person, as if someone else had committed them.
"Then I found out that all the guys could do that. They could separate themselves from their crimes," Myers says. "We come up with strategies for dealing with our lives and my strategy might be different because my life has been different."
His newest book, "Kick," is a unique collaboration with one of his readers. In 2007, Myers received an admiring e-mail from 13-year-old Ross Workman of Westfield, N.J., praising Myers for not sounding "like an adult when you're writing about kids."
Myers responded and the two became friendly enough that the author suggested that he and Ross collaborate on a novel about a troubled soccer star. Myers was skeptical that a teenager, any teenager, would stay with such a project, but the book was completed and Myers' publisher, HarperCollins, agreed to release it.
"I can't thank you enough for what you have done and taught me," Ross wrote to Myers.