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Prophet of Second Chances: A Conversation with Acclaimed Author Walter Dean Myers

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Walter Dean Myers understands second chances. A high school dropout by age 17, he enlisted in the army and worked odd jobs as a young adult. It was his lifelong relationship with books that put him on a path to becoming one of the nation's most celebrated young adult authors. Five Coretta Scott King Awards and two Newbery Honors later, Myers is sharing the lesson of second chances with a new generation of at-risk youth.

Last week, Myers spoke with us about the central themes of his new novel, Dope Sick: personal responsibility and redemption. The novel tells the story of a young man facing the consequences of a drug deal gone wrong who has an opportunity to review and revise his life choices. This story line reflects a belief Myers avowed throughout our interview: We must empower teens to take greater control of their lives.

Dope Sick has become the centerpiece of an effort to do just that. Myers is collaborating with AdLit.org and the NEA on the Second Chance Initiative, which aims to help youth make better choices. As part of this initiative, the novel will be available for free on HarperCollins' website from February 10th through 24th. The initiative also offers Dope Sick reading guides and writing activities along with resources on preventing high school dropout, teen pregnancy and substance abuse.

Underlying this effort is Myers' long-standing faith that reading can offer hope to teens who need it most.

Listen to highlights from our interview with Walter Dean Myers here (16 minutes), or read a transcript below:


PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You're releasing your new novel, Dope Sick, very soon. What's the novel about?

MYERS: It's about a young man who has reached a point of crisis in his life. He goes into a building, running from the police, and he meets another young man his own age. The new young man is a somewhat fantastic creature who can call up the protagonist's entire life on a television. He can call up any moment.

He forces the young man to take a very hard look at his life--to look at his life...without kidding himself. He asks him, "If you could change one thing in your life to turn your life around, what would that be?" The book is about this young man reviewing his own life and trying to find a moment that he could then take back and reverse his life.

The protagonist is Lil J and the young boy he meets, this mysterious person, is Kelly. Kelly also shows Lil J the very terrifying possibilities of his immediate future, so there's a sense of urgency to find something in his life that he can reverse and get this second chance.

It's a book about redemption, and it comes from my interviews with so many of these young men. I go to juvenile detention centers. Very often I will see these young people and ask them, "What got you here? How did you get to this point in your life?" Sometimes they'll say, "I did this particular crime," or, "I did this particular thing."

I [ask], "Is that what started it?" They'll say, "Well, no. I did this thing over here, and maybe I should have done this… I should have done the other thing."

[These kids] really need to go back and figure out, what are the steps? Whenever some kid gets into trouble, it's not the last thing that he did that gets him there. It's an attitude that they come up with that leads them slowly along the line.

I've spoken to so many of these young men. I had a very sad experience recently. I spoke to a kid in an elementary school and told him about a book I was working on. Then, three years later, I met the same kid in a juvenile detention facility and he asked me if I had finished the book. Very sad.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: On the other hand, the fact that you've drawn so much of your work from your interactions with youth in these detention facilities suggests that you're able to give them a voice in your writing. Do you think that at-risk youth have enough of a voice in the popular culture and in popular literature?

MYERS: I don't think so. I think that we're not relying upon their ability to examine their lives....

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: President Obama, as you know, has recently stressed the themes of personal responsibility and self-sufficiency even when he talks about improving the environments in which many at-risk youths have to grow up. Do you see, in your own work, this focus on personal responsibility and self-sufficiency? And how do you balance that against the fact that these kids do face so many disadvantages?

MYERS: I do see that in my work. The kids have to come to grips with what I call the social contract. They have to come to grips with the idea that they have responsibility for their own lives, no matter what. No matter what happens to them....

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: On the other hand, you recently published an editorial in the Huffington Post entitled Rescue the Children Along with the Bankers, and you suggest that there really is a national responsibility towards these children as well.

MYERS: The thing, I think, is that we've been looking the other way because the problems are difficult.

When I see that 50 percent of African-American kids don't finish high school, that's a crisis of tremendous weight to me. These kids are not finishing high school. They're not getting the core knowledge of how to conduct their lives and how to move on. As far as I'm concerned, from a national point of view as an American, we have to rescue these kids. We have to reverse this. We have to go into these communities and turn this around.

The first thing we have to do is change the norm. When these kids go to school, their norm is depressed. It's been dislocated downward. So they have these low expectations of themselves--not of their abilities, but of what's acceptable. So if a kid gets C's and D's, it's fine. It's okay. Because in his community, C's and D's are the norm. There are many schools in the New York area and New Jersey where the norm for the school is not to graduate high school. We have to change that.

I think Obama, because he doesn't have to be as politically correct as a white president, can approach this. And he has to. He has to. Because these kids are coming through schools… The pictures that I see are not even as good as the dismal figures which are being published.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What's the picture you see in your interactions with youth in detention centers and in communities?

MYERS: In detention centers, with the fan mail that I get. I get dozens and dozens of letters. Sometimes you can't tell if it's a high school kid that's writing to you or a grammar school kid. It's really tragic.

When I go to the schools and I talk to these young people, I find they are disappointed also. They're disappointed in their progress, they're disappointed in their possibilities. But they don't know what to do. They don't know how to get out of this [situation].

What I say to them is, you have to learn how to live your life. You have to learn more about life generally. You have to learn even things like geography, history. You have to know what's expected of you and how the game is played, so to speak. That's up to you. But it's up to us [as a nation] to realize this and to teach them.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You've clearly gotten quite a lot of fan mail, and you have a large base of readers. At a time when some people have argued that young people generally are reading fewer books in this country than they used to, how do you make sure that you're reaching the audiences you really want to reach?

MYERS: One of the things that I really understand is that I want to expand their world, but first I have to go into their world. So with Lil J and Dope Sick, I make sure that the language is child-friendly. I make sure that the environment in the books [is realistic], so when a kid picks up the book, he says, "Yes. Okay. I know these people. I know this neighborhood or a neighborhood similar to it."

I was at the Harlem Children's Zone last Friday, and they're working with [my book] Monster. What's happening there is that the parents are reading the books with the children. The parents came up to me and said, "We recognize this neighborhood. We know this family relationship." I think that's what you have to do. You have to go to where the kids are and then expand from there.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You mentioned earlier that Dope Sick has a lot to do with giving people who've maybe taken the wrong path a second chance, and that leads me to your Second Chance Initiative. I understand you're actually trying to expand this theme into the work you're doing right now to try to reach youth. Could you describe it?

MYERS: I feel that young people can turn their lives around, given the right tools. Understanding, for example, what work is. What is work? What is study? What is getting a good grade about? So when I go to these prisons, when I go to the juvenile detention centers, I try to do workshops with these kids, explaining not how good it is to have good grades in math, but what math is going to do for you and how you can approach math in a way that is going to be useful to you for a lifetime.

The same thing with reading. Nothing annoys me more than to hear some person say that reading can take you to far-off places and it's a good leisure-time activity, when I really feel that reading is something that is like air. You read or you suffer. As I say to my kids, "Either you read or you suffer."

So what I'm trying to do is to get these kids to go to a more basic idea. Not just the abstract idea of academic excellence, but what are you doing? What is your life about?

I use my own life as an example. I dropped out of high school, went into the army, and came out. The path that I took any child can take. I don't consider myself extraordinarily bright or extraordinarily gifted, but I've learned things. I've learned lessons from my illiterate stepfather about how to conduct my life. When I tell kids about my background, the reaction is very often, "If you can do this, with your background; if you have gone through these things, then I can also."

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: As you reach out to kids who begin to see their own experience in your life and begin to take hope from it, do you have a sense of what schools can do to help impart the same kind of messages? Either specifically through your Second Chance Initiative, or more generally?

MYERS: One of the things I would like to see is what I saw at the Harlem Children's Zone—that is, the schools bringing in parents. Have parents come in and discuss some of these ideas with the children.

[Schools can] have open forums on books, rather than [have students] just read a book and then go back and answer questions about it.

Allow the kids to challenge books. I love it when someone challenges my book and will perhaps bring me in, and I'll have to defend the book. That's great, because that gives me an opportunity to go there, talk to these kids, and let them know. I say, "Listen. This is how I went about writing this book. This is what I meant to do. This is what I felt like I should be doing. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't work, but this is how I did it." At that point I'm humanizing the process for the kids.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you have any new work on the horizon that we should know about?

MYERS: I am currently writing another book about a young man in prison, in a juvenile detention [center].

I just finished reading the Viktor Frankl book Man's Search for Meaning, about survival in a [Nazi] prison camp. I absolutely loved that book so much. One of the reasons I loved it is that I had actually met someone who was in a Japanese prison of war camp. I met this man--it must have been about 40 years ago--and I was just so taken [with] Victor Frankl, writing about the Nazi camp--there were so many similarities.

But what I loved about this book is that Frankl comes out of himself for his own salvation. He comes out of himself for his own salvation. I said, "That's what these kids need to do. They need to stop just looking at themselves and having this enormous self-pity and self-interest, and focus on something outside of themselves." That's what I'm working on now.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Are there any questions I should have asked you, but didn't?

MYERS: I have enormous faith in young people. I think if we challenge them more and if we give them a clearer idea of what life expects from them… I don't think we're giving them a clear idea. I think that we need to prepare these people for their future. If not, we're going to have a generation of kids just standing around. I have faith in those kids.

We have historical precedents [of meeting this type of challenge]. We had the turnaround at the end of slavery, wherein you had all these ex-slaves getting off of plantations. Within ten years, they had turned themselves around. There was an educated black class. This is very, very doable if we are hard enough. But we have to be really, really, really hard, I think.

The kids--I think that they'll respond. I think the kids can respond, but I think we have to enlist them. We can't put education on them like a new coat, or a mantle. We have to enlist these kids. We have to say, "This is up to you. This is your responsibility. This is not the responsibility only of the teachers."

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Is there anything that we can do to help you with your Second Chance Initiative?

MYERS: I think that we [need to] get this idea going that we're trying to talk to all kids and say, "Look, a second chance is possible." One of the things that I'm seeing is that a kid can go through up to 12 or 13 years old, then they begin to realize, "Oh, my god. I'm in trouble." I think if we begin talking about a second chance, many of these kids will reach for it. I think if we can get teachers talking about a second chance [and that] you can turn your life around at 14, at 15 and 16, I think kids will reach for it.

I think that with the new administration, one of the things that’s happening is that the people who backed Obama are more in tune with the idea of personal responsibility....

I hope that's the case.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Thanks again. I'm so glad we had a chance to talk.

MYERS: It's my pleasure.