Young Adult Realism

Article excerpt

Walter Dean Myers writes for the boy he used to be. In young adult (YA) novels like Dope Sick and Sunrise Over Fallujah, the 73-year-old Harlem native and author of more than 80 books for youth explores the high-stakes choices teens make in violent and impoverished communities. A frequent visitor to America's juvenile detention facilities, Myers' rough upbringing compels him

to reach out to youth at the margins; it also informs his art. His 2010 book Lockdown - a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature- is about a boy who must choose between protecting a younger boy from a gang assault and looking after himself.

In a field celebrated for its formal experimentation, Myers, whose influential classic, Monster, is written in screenplay format, stands as a titan to the legions of new YA authors working today.

Currently, Myers is at work on All the Right Stuff, a novel inspired by JeanJacques Rousseau's The Social Contract.

He spoke to In These Times from his home in Jersey City, N.J., about the importance of mentors and the debt he owes James Baldwin.

The field of young adult literature has exploded, attracting authors who hadn't previously published for teens. What responsibilities does an author have to his teen audience?

I'm torn, because I feel a responsibility of moral leadership when I write for teens, but I also think that you write for yourself first. I look at the young people that I deal with and so many of them are in so much need of guidance, the sort of guidance that I had as a kid Many kids I meet don't have that. I want my books to prompt a discussion of values.

How did you become involved working in juvenile detention facilities?

I was working a lot in adult prisons and I began to realize that all these guys in prison have kids. I was at a juvenile prison recently and I asked two 15-year-old girls what was the worst part about being in jail and they said, "Not knowing where our children are." Ttiey had kids. All these young men and women with children are going to jail. Who's going to raise those kids? Somebody has to at least talk to them and say, "Look, this is what you did, you should have been thinking about this earlier before you were in trouble." I feel that I have a responsibility to all kids to visit them, to see how they're doing and to oifer whatever advice that I have to give them.

What do you say to kids in these facilities about their futures?

I tell them they're going to have to find something outside themselves just to survive.

When I was writing Lockdown, I was reading Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl, who was in a concentration carnp, developed a theory thai no matter how miserable your own existence is, you have to come out of it and find something to care for and love that's beyond yourself. This is what these kids have to do. There are not sufficient programs to help them. There's nothing in our society that tells them they're OK. They feel absolutely helpless. And one ot the things I say is, "I've been through this experience."

I dropped out of school at 15 and my mom was an alcoholic. That was devastating. I couldn't go to school and raise my hand and say, "Oh, 1 couldn't do my homework because my mom was lying drunk on the street and I had to help her home." That stuff absolutely fills your head up. You can't think of anything beyond that. I say to them, "It doesn't get easier, but you have to look at yourself and be self-protective."

What do you think would be a more effective way to deal with youths who commit crimes?

I think we need alternative sentencing and a strong mentoring system. They need mentors who will show them the deeper values than they would normally receive. There's one boy Tm working with now in a facility who writes science fiction. He may never become a writer, but at least he'll think about his work with me and he'll have some hope. …