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A Talk with Walter Dean Myers

Author chats with Scholastic News Online about bullying

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Walter Dean Myers
Walter Dean Myers (Photo: Courtesy HarperCollins)
Q: How do you know so much about bullying?
In talking to young people who are incarcerated, I find many of them are bullied as kids. When they got older they turned around and become bullies themselves. Many kids in detention centers, they are emotionally young. When I saw that, I saw how prevalent it was.

Q: Were your children ever bullied? What did you tell them when it happened?
My son Christopher was quite young when he went to school. In sixth grade he was only about 10. That was very difficult. Although there was not that much of a physical difference, there was an age difference. I found out that the boy doing the bullying was considerably older. I told my son it was not his fault, he was not lacking.

Q: Do you think it's up to parents to stop their kids from being bullies, or should schools have some responsibility too?
Schools have to have policies that state that the bullies cannot get away with it. They have to have a policies that there will be no bullying in the school. One reason is to put the onus on the bully. Also, it allows other kids a device to speak up when they see it. There are some schools around the country that have almost no bullying at all because they have experienced bullying and they have ways to stop it. Understand it has to be an announced policy. Many schools will just say, let's see if it happens again. A school HAS to have a clear and definite no-bullying policy.

Q: We have been reading 145th Street Short Stories, and it's very realistic. What inspired you to write the book?
I like that street very much. I hang out on that street. I like the small shops and the people and I wanted to give them a voice. Some of the stories are actually true stories that I remembered from growing up in Harlem. I reproduced the entire neighborhood.

Q: Where do you get your ideas for your books?
Whatever bothers me becomes an idea for a book. Example: bullying. I see that so much so often. I go to juvenile detention centers and I see the young people in juvenile detention centers, so I write about those kids. Whatever I see inspires me. When I see things I like — like 145th Street, — that becomes an idea for a book

Q:Have you ever been bullied?
No. I've never been bullied. I was always big kid, so people did not want to mess with me very much. I also played sports. What happens is that kids are bullied very often by kids who don't have a lot of friends, who don't belong to groups. If you belong to sports groups, that keeps bullies away.

Q: How has the Internet changed bullying?
One of the things the Internet has done that is really good, it takes the bullying out of the idea. People know about it now. They know how much it is done. I did a radio show, and to speak about it on the radio, lit up many, many people who called to say that they were victims of bullying. Same thing with the Internet. People are openly talking about it and that's good.

Q: Was your son Christopher actually bullied when he was so young? How did he deal with it?
One thing, he knew that I supported him. I was not going to look at him and tell him that he was going to have to fight better. I was on his side. I was supporting him. I would do anything to not allow him to be bullied.

Q: What makes a person a bully?
Number one, they think they can get away with it. And they'll do it. Next, the kid's somehow not so sure about himself. He does not feel good about himself. To make himself feel better, he picks on other kids.

Q: When did you start writing?
I began writing in school. I had my first poem published in the fourth grade. I was 9 years old. I've been at it ever since.

Q: What would you do if you weren't a writer?
And if I wasn't a professional basketball player? If I had finished college I would have gone into law.

Q: When you start a new book, do you know you want to focus on an issue like bullying or racism? Or does that happen as you go along?
I know exactly what I want to say, I know exactly where I'm going with a book. The only things that change are the way the characters react. I think I know how a character will react, but that could change. Otherwise I know exactly where I'm going.

Q: Do you think your books help kids?
I think that many of the problems I put into the books help kids engage problems intellectually before they confront them on the street.

Q: Do you think your books will make little kids stop bullying?
No, my books would not make kids stop bullying. But I hope that when the questions come up, that the kids who do the bullying, will stop being looked upon as tough guys, or as cool guys. I think the whole idea of being bullied is a very bad thing and I think my books will do that.

Q: Can you talk about your book Shooter?
After the Columbine incident, I was upset. I went out to Colorado and spoke to some people out there. What I saw was kids being bullied, pushed around, sometimes by fellow students, sometimes by family members. These kids would get so angry and upset. I saw kids being bullied, and I saw them reacting to being bullied.

Q: How did you decide how to tell that story?
One of the things I knew was that I could cover the entire story. When I looked into the case, I saw that these kids were pushed around so much in that school, they had been pushed around, looked down upon, that both the physical and emotional bullying, I wanted to use the same technique the official investigators used. The point of the investigation was to predict that kind of incident. I don't think that can be predicted. They only looked at the incident, not the causes.

Q: Were you ever a member of a gang?
I was never a member of a gang. I fought against the gangs. My brothers and I were involved in a gang fight. The gang tried to push us into actions we didn't want and we had to fight them. I have half brothers, I was a foster child. Nine of us altogether.

Q: Was there one person who inspired you to become so involved in reading and writing?
My teachers encouraged me to read in school. I found that books were a way of me reaching out to the world that I could not do otherwise. My writing was a way to do that too. Walking into a library was my way of being a part of a reading and writing community. I could walk into a library and be part of that world and that was wonderful. Reading good books opens the world to you. We all need to read more.



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