Getting the Drift

Author Walter Dean Myers understands how youngsters without a moral rudder in their lives can wander toward trouble. Reading and writing kept him off that path.

January 29, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Walter Dean Myers knows that the world is a murky place. He knows that life poses more questions than it answers, that it affords no obvious ethical right of way. As an author, he is at home in such a world; but as someone concerned about the fate of young African-Americans, that world is a deeply troubling place.

Myers' recent book "Monster" (HarperCollins, $15.95) is about a bright but listing teen named Steve Harmon trapped in the criminal justice system. Last week, it received the first Michael L. Printz Award, presented by the American Library Association for outstanding young adult literature.

Told as if it were Steve's own screenplay and journal, "Monster" vets "truth" in the same way that a movie does, through disparate points of view, editing decisions, testimonies. We know Steve is a good kid, but imperfect, vulnerable, hesitant. We don't know at the book's conclusion whether he'll get on track, or tumble down the slippery slope to criminality and amorality, as have many of his peers. Steve, himself, is not sure, and without a moral compass to point the way, his future is anyone's hunch.

Myers, as a young man in Harlem, was once in a situation similar to his protagonist's, with a saving grace: He has always loved to read. Even as a high school truant, Myers could be found with a book, curled up in a corner somewhere.

"That was my salvation," he says. "That saved me."

Tomorrow, Myers discusses how reading set his life's compass at the Enoch Pratt Free library, where he is keynote speaker for a program celebrating the memory of Margaret Alexander Edwards, a Baltimore librarian and champion of teen-age readers.

As a youth, writing came nearly as easily to Myers as reading. But it would take several decades, and untold day jobs, both odd and respectable, before Myers, now 62, turned his full attention to writing.

He began in 1969 with the children's picture book, "Where Does the Day Go?" Today, books -- many of them award winners -- pour from the author at an awesome rate. Even four publishers can't keep pace with his output, which has surpassed 50 volumes of young adult fiction, nonfiction, picture books and poetry.

From his Jersey City rowhouse, shared with wife Constance and a jumble of books, papers and his collection of antique photographs of beloved black children, Myers cranks out seven pages a day, five days a week. He's down from 10 pages a day, an act of mercy for his beleaguered publishers -- Delacorte, Scholastic and Holiday House, as well as HarperCollins.

Myers' literary interests range widely within and without the black experience. His latest book, "145th Street Short Stories" (Delacorte, $15.95), delights in the exploits of the real people who live on a single city block.

But Myers always returns to the interior world of boys, specifically African-American boys who grow up in the city and must wrestle with right and wrong. Since 1975, when "Fast Sam, Cool Clyde and Stuff" was published, and in later books such as "Hoops," "Slam" and the recent "Monster," it's as if Myers' former persona -- the smart kid with an uncertain future -- is repeatedly reborn to confront anew the challenges of urban life.

And while the dreary basics -- poverty, crime, racism -- remain the same, the persona itself has evolved, says Deborah Taylor, coordinator of school and student services at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

In the 1981 "Hoops," Myers' protagonist Lonnie Jackson was buffeted by outside forces, including a gambling underworld that claimed his basketball coach and mentor. In "Monster," Steve Harmon's struggle is more internal, more introspective, Taylor says.

She read "Monster" in galley form last winter and chaired the jury that made it a 1999 Coretta Scott King Honor Book. It is "a ground-breaking book," Taylor says.

"It's highly visual and highly connected to screenwriting and the flow of the movie. Yet it incorporates those elements into the novel, and maintains the integrity of the narrative."

Taylor admires the way the author "tells the story of a kid who drifts into trouble, as opposed to a kid who sets out to get in trouble." It is a frequent theme for Myers, Taylor says: "The absence of something else in their lives, that leaves them vulnerable to drifting, leaves them rudderless, [and tempted by] by the appeal of the street.

"Even Steve in `Monster' has loving parents, parents who are not quite sure how to handle a kid of today."

By avoiding predictable characters, such as the single mother on welfare, Myers allows readers to walk into the story in a way that prevents stereotypical judgments about Steve and his world, Taylor says.

"Monster" expresses Myers' escalating concern with generations of black youth that he sees absolving themselves of the need to take charge of their lives.

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