A Father's Open Book
Walter Dean Myers' love of the written word started early. Raised in the 1940s by foster parents in Harlem, he made the local public library on 125th street his second home. Although he was a good student, he was restless, and he dropped out of school and joined the army when he was 17. At the age of 30, he entered a writing contest which he won, resulting in his first book, Where Does the Day Go? Since then, he has published more than two dozen books, mostly for young adults, which often focus on the hard-scrabble life of black youth in Harlem.
Myers has become one of the most respected authors of young adult fiction, having won the prestigious Newbery Honor twice, The Michael L. Printz Award once, and the Coretta Scott King Award for African American authors five times. He has also become a dedicated community activist who volunteers to speak to troubled youth. And, as a dad who often talks of the value of responsibility, he provides a model of fatherhood.
The 73-year-old author is a grandfather now, but that doesn't mean he's getting soft. Two of his more recent books are located on the basketball court (Game) and in the drug-addled streets (Dope Sick). And his latest, Lockdown, takes place in a juvy jail called Progress, where yet another one of Myer's young male characters struggles to find a better path for himself.
And when NYC DADS asked Myers some questions, he told it like he sees it-with a clarity of vision and the sort of tough love that every good father could aspire to.
What was your relationship with your foster father like?
We weren't close because he maintained a barrier grounded in his illiteracy. He was ashamed of the fact that he couldn't read and so withheld a good part of himself from me. I picked up his work ethic which has been a very important part of my life.
What were your favorite things to do with your kids in NYC?
I did what I enjoyed doing and let them tag along. I played ball and took them to the park. I haunted the book stores in lower Manhattan and allowed them to buy books when I did.
Your son, Chris, is now a children's book illustrator, with whom you've collaborated. Can you describe your working relationship?
Once I learned that he had talent (I didn't see this at first but his mother did) I treated that talent as I would have any other artist. This was somewhat hard on him at first but he got used to it and developed a healthy respect for his own abilities. Today, I respect his work and try to learn from it. We also compete against each other but work hard to keep the competition on a healthy basis.
What are the most important attributes of a good father?
Being open to another person is always the most important part of a relationship. When a child understands what a person thinks and feels, there is a common humanity established that transcends economics and social station.
Has fatherhood changed since you were growing up in Harlem?
Very much. The biggest change is the relationship between income and fixed housing expense. The foundation of 'family' is a dwelling place. In the Harlem of my youth, minimum wage was sufficient to secure some kind of permanent housing. This allowed young couples to start to build the relationships and traditions which create strong families. Today's minimum wage level as it relates to housing expenditures is clearly anti-family. Much of what is being touted as the irresponsibility of young men can really be attributed to simple economics. Moreover, the pressures created by marginally sufficient income also help to destroy marriages. Young men want to be good fathers, good providers, and role models. I've spoken with dozens of young fathers in prisons throughout the country and they think of their children constantly. Ironically, many crimes are committed by young men to acquire the means to fulfill family obligations.
I've heard you speak about the importance of responsibility. Why is it so important?
Before young men can achieve responsibility for families we have to understand what is going on in our society. What do we value as a people? Who do we value? Are the societal values we are applauding consistent with the building of families or with the notion of responsible fatherhood? Is the evolving definition of masculinity moved so far away from home life that we have stopped encouraging young men to even consider marriage?
How important is reading for fathers?
We often don't have the language or the insights to discuss important issues with children. Often a book can provide not only the insights but the opportunity to find a comfortable neutral ground in which a parent can communicate with a child. Almost any book will do because the child is anxious to participate in an activity with the father and curious to know his thoughts and to emulate him. For teenagers, a book like Lockdown affords glimpses into many areas that a parent can explore.
What's it like being a grandfather?
Being a grandfather, especially one with my means, is a pleasure. You just work very hard to outsmart your grandkids and, once in a while, allow them to outsmart you.