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Fountain of Stories for Youth

Walter Dean Myers writes books for young people. But their realism and richness have adults reading them too.

October 15, 1997|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — If the sociologists are to be believed, Walter Dean Myers was a demographic disaster waiting to happen. Living in what is politely called rural poverty in West Virginia, his father had many children by almost as many women. Myers was just a year old when his mother died and his father literally gave him away to a couple who moved him to Harlem.

There, on New York City's hard streets, he gave his foster parents a terrible time. "I was always in trouble," he said, half boasting, half regretting. He hung out with gangs. He was "sort of" arrested. It didn't help that he had a serious speech impediment. No one could understand what he said. Myers responded by being angry all the time.

So with only the slightest shift in life's winds, Walter Dean Myers might have become another sad statistic from the place where he grew up. Instead, he became a giant of contemporary literature for young people. "Fallen Angels," his 1988 novel about Vietnam, is widely considered a classic, a work often compared to masterpieces of the adult Vietnam genre like Michael Herr's "Dispatches," or Tim O'Brien's "Going After Cacciato."

By choosing to write for kids, the 60-year-old Myers also became an anomaly: a male writer in a field dominated by women; an African American in a genre that for years was almost exclusively white. He became, with countless awards and more than 50 titles for young people, an inadvertent phenomenon, a writer with so many projects in progress at any one moment that he keeps track of them on a flow-chart posted in his kitchen.

"I don't know how he gets so many ideas," love-grumbled his wife Constance, an artist. "Every two seconds or so, he'll say, 'Oh, I got an idea.' It's very annoying."

One idea that had been brewing probably since Myers moved north as a baby was "Harlem," a stunning paean to the community his publisher, Scholastic, calls "this crucible of American culture." Myers' 23-year-old son, Christopher, provided the lush collage illustrations that accompany this celebration of the historic center of African American life:

Yellow/tan/brown/black/red

Green/gray/bright

Colors loud enough to be heard

Light on asphalt streets

Sun yellow shirts on burnt umber

Bodies

Demanding to be heard, seen

Soon after the book was published this spring, it became clear that adults were buying "Harlem" for themselves, not just for children. Readers of all ages were drawn by Myers' memories of a boyhood rich in "bright sun on Harlem streets, the easy rhythm of black and brown bodies, the sounds of children streaming in and out of red brick tenements." For along with a precarious relationship with Harlem's street life half a century ago, Myers recalls abundant love and encouragement in his early years.

It was his foster mother, barely literate herself, who taught him to read. Every day, she sat him down and read out loud from "True Romance" magazine. Myers soon moved on to comic books. But when he tried reading comics in class, his teacher caught him and tore them up. The next day, she brought him a pile of books from her own library. "That was the best thing that ever happened to me," Myers said. When Myers first visited the public library, he thought he'd found Nirvana. "I couldn't believe my luck in discovering that what I loved most--reading--was free," he said.

Still, with his speech problems and his attitude, Myers continued to clash with authorities. In sixth grade, a tough teacher named Irwin Lasher, a former Marine, decided to make Myers his rescue project. "He spent the entire year telling me I was bright," Myers remembered. "He was idealistic, decent and tough. And it worked." Myers began to write, short stories and little poems. For the first time in his life, he won steady praise. By high school, he'd decided he was an intellectual.

But there was no way, no prayer on a hot Harlem day, that college was in his future. At 17, Myers dropped out of high school and joined the Army. Years of pickup basketball in Morningside Park served him well, and the 6-foot-2-inch recruit found himself a star on an Army team. Their colonel was betting heavily on the ballplayers, and when the team lost its tournament in the finals, he shipped the players to the Arctic as punishment. Myers was young. He loved every frozen minute of it.

But, then he was out of the Army. What was he going to do? He knocked around, loading trucks, "really pissy jobs," finally landing a laborer's job with the post office. "I wanted to do something else, so I decided to try writing. It was cheap, no overhead," Myers said. "You didn't have to have success. I could think of myself as a writer, even a would-be writer, rather than a truck-loader."

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