Copyright ©2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

They may be overshadowed by the Internet, but books still have the power to change a life. That's true of the man we're about to meet. Books also have the power to help people pass on stories from one generation to the next, and that is what happened to Walter Dean Myers.

He grew up reading the works of the writer we heard about on this program yesterday, Richard Wright. Now, Myers himself wants to reach black and Hispanic kids. NPR's Juan Williams continues his reporting on how one generation of black Americans tells its stories to the next.

JUAN WILLIAMS: They meet in a classroom at a juvenile detention center in the South Bronx. The kids walk in wearing prison jumpsuits, hands behind their backs. They sit slumped in their chairs. But don't be fooled by the attitude: These kids have been required to read some of Walter Dean Myers' dozens of books, books about being insecure for lack of a dad, books about being scared to walk in your neighborhood, books about being viewed as a criminal monster.

So they want to be there to meet the author. An NPR producer sat in.

Mr. WALTER DEAN MYERS (Author): So, I write, and I've been writing for 30 years. And whatever interests me is what I write about. Right?

WILLIAMS: Walter Dean Myers had his share of run-ins with the law growing up. He lived not far from this Bronx detention center with his adopted family in Harlem.

One girl, her name is Britney(ph), says she found family in prison.

BRITNEY: You know, you think more when you're locked up. You think more positive.

Mr. MYERS: Sometimes, when you're on the street, you don't do that.

Ms. BRITNEY: You'll be in a house. As soon as you hang out late, and you see how fun it is, you get addicted to it and you want to keep coming out late and later and later. Now look on that, all because I got addicted to stupid stuff, like addicted to things that didn't even teach me how to be smarter. I might be a little bit street smart, but I'm not book smart.

Mr. MYERS: Right. One of the things that you can do is to start writing, because you're saying things that people want to hear. You're saying things that you have realized upon reflection. Maybe you'll want to do a book outline, and I can help you with it. If you're interested, I am.

WILLIAMS: One way the 70-year-old Walter Dean Myers gets interested in his books is to map out the characters. He uses photographs.

Mr. MYERS: I started collecting photographs because I did a writing workshop in a school in Jersey City, and the kids were writing such negative stuff about themselves that I began to collect photographs to show how beautiful that they actually were. And I used the photographs in a number of different books.

WILLIAMS: He pulled out one of his books. On the back cover, there's a picture of him with his brother in front of the church they went to as kids. The kids at the detention center gathered around quickly to look.

Mr. MYERS: Which one of those is me?

BRITNEY: This one.

Unidentified Woman #1: That one, yeah.

Mr. MYERS: Yup.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #2: Let me see, Britney. Oh, look at those shoes.

Unidentified Woman #1: Who is that boy next to you?

Mr. MYERS: My brother. One of my brothers.

WILLIAMS: Today, Walter Dean Myers lives across the river from his Harlem roots, among a collection of tens of thousands of photographs depicting various aspects of African-American life.

Mr. MYERS: And I have cabinets throughout the house full of photographs.

WILLIAMS: I sat across from him in his Jersey City home office, and he showed me some of the pictures he's collected.

Mr. MYERS: This is 19-year-old Juan(ph) or something like that. These are children in these regular public schools.

WILLIAMS: These are white kids.

Mr. MYERS: Yeah, and sometimes black kids. This is actually the school I went to as a child.

WILLIAMS: Walter Dean Myers grew up in Harlem with the parents who adopted him. He was tall, teased for his speech impediment, and got into his share of fights. Off the streets, he had a secret life. He read books.

Around that time, in the 1950s, he discovered a writer who he could see right around the corner in Harlem, a writer named Langston Hughes.

Mr. MYERS: As a kid, I wanted to be a writer. Now, all my models were British writers. This is what I learned in school. So when I met Langston Hughes, he didn't look to me like a writer.

WILLIAMS: Because he wasn't white.

Mr. MYERS: Because he wasn't white.

WILLIAMS: Did you ever read Richard Wright?

Mr. MYERS: Yes.

WILLIAMS: And did you read "Black Boy"?

Mr. MYERS: Yes. Actually, I got to Richard Wright through James Baldwin. James Baldwin and Richard Wright had this clash. And I met James Baldwin, and I asked him about that clash. And he was saying that when he read "Black Boy," he was both pleased with it because it mirrored some of the things that happened to him, but he was upset with it because he felt that Wright had glamorized in a sort of a negative way his earlier upbringing.

WILLIAMS: Glamorized black criminal activity.

Mr. MYERS: Right. So when I'm writing "Bad Boy," I'm thinking to myself, I don't want to glamorize anything that I've done. What I wanted to show was a duality of character more clearly than Wright had, because when I was a kid, I would be in the streets. I'd play ball. If there was a fight, I would look for it, but when I wasn't doing that, I was a book person.

WILLIAMS: "Bad Boy," the story of his early life, does not glamorize the fights. But Walter Dean Myers didn't reveal everything in his memoir.

What would you put into that story if you had the opportunity to rewrite your life story again?

Mr. MYERS: I think I would have put in more about the burden I carried with me every single day. The first time I dropped out of school, the counselors asked me what was wrong, and I couldn't say that, you know, my home life was disintegrating. I wasn't going to tell some teacher oh, no, you know, my mom's an alcoholic and this is - I wasn't going to do that.

I had a knock on my door, and someone said to me, Walter, your mother's downstairs in the hallway. You'd better go down and carry her upstairs. For two days after that, I couldn't think of anything. But I think that weighed on me so much.

WILLIAMS: Walter Dean Myers understands that there must be a lot weighing on the minds of the kids at that Bronx detention facility. The kids who had slouched in the chairs when he first started speaking leaned in to listen. One of the girls says she writes. Walter Dean Myers asked the group...

Mr. MYERS: If you could tell me to write a book, what would it be about?

Unidentified Woman #3: You're doing it already. About life, just life.

WILLIAMS: About life, just life, she said. Juan Williams, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can get a look at some of the photos that inspired Walter Dean Myers' writing, and you can read the first chapter of his book, "Game," at npr.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.