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An Interview With Walter Dean Myers About The Journal of Scott Pendleton Collins

  • Grades: 6–8

Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D.: You could have told this story about a soldier from any part of the United States but you focused on the 116th Infantry Regiment from central Virginia? Why?

Walter Dean Myers: When we think of war the tendency is to picture young soldiers only in their military roles. To a large extent this dehumanizes the soldiers and makes it easier for society to commit them to combat. I wanted to show these young men as having families and homes, as well as a rich social and cultural heritage. Many of these young men were from Virginia and, in my photograph collection, I have images of them before they were in combat and in my print archives I have lists of those who died on the beach.

RFA & LMP: The journal Scott's Uncle Richard gives him before the boy goes off to war turns out to be an important gift. Some writers seem to swear by the importance of their writer's journals and others never use them. Are journals a part of your way of writing, jotting down ideas, observations, or creating outlines?

WDM: I keep threatening to keep a formal journal but whenever I start one it instantly becomes an exercise in self-consciousness. Instead of a journal I manage to have dozens of notebooks with bits and pieces of stories, poems, and notes. Almost every thing I do has its beginning in a notebook of some sort, usually written on a bus or train. I've searched for hours for a notebook because I think it contains a useful outline or a thought I might want to use.

RFA & LMP: Are there one or two scenes in Scott's diary that you are especially pleased with as a writer?

WDM: I took many of the battle scenes from the After Action Reports obtained from the National Archives. I enjoyed translating these in terms of my characters. I wanted the book to be as accurate as possible and here I got lucky with a neighbor. A retired judge who lives around the corner from me asked what I was working on and I told him that I was doing a book on the invasion of Normandy. You can imagine my surprise when he told me he had been there. Henry B. McFarland shared his memories with me and I used these to set the invasion scenes.

RFA & LMP: Your highly praised novel, Fallen Angels, also tells a story of a teenager in war, but, in this case, Vietnam. Is the experience of fighting a war always the same or does it differ depending on location and time? Do Scott's war experiences during WWII differ from Richard Perry's in Vietnam?

WDM: The most difficult idea to reconcile in war is the notion that anything is going to be solved by killing a stranger, or in risking your life for a cause anchored in some distant political arena. In this all wars are similar. In World War II, however, the United States had been attacked at Pearl Harbor and both Japan and Germany had declared war. In Vietnam we took up the cause of South Vietnam, entering a war in which there was not a unified vision. The support of the fighting men and women in Vietnam, therefore, was not nearly as great as that in World War II.

RFA & LMP: In the Epilogue to Scott's journal, you write, "The central player in this story is the war itself. It lives on." And live on it does with the pictures of the four generations of Collins men in uniform on the wall of the family home. Are these photos a portrait of patriotism and family pride or a source of sadness that we never seem to know how to live without war?

WDM: To fight for one's country, to offer one's very life to promote the well being of the United States is truly a noble undertaking. But so is the vigilance of the citizen who carefully examines our leaders to see if political problems are being solved by wars simply because this seems to be the easiest solution. Scott had to have a clearer idea of why he was fighting in Europe than Perry did in Vietnam. Perry was also very much aware of the fact that many people back home did not support the war and this had to be a tremendous burden.

RFA & LMP: If young readers of The Journal of Scott Pendleton Collins wanted to read another book or two about World War II, what titles would you recommend?

WDM: Omaha Beachhead is a U.S. government publication and an excellent introduction to the invasion. The New History of World War II by Stephen E. Ambrose is also an excellent overview of the entire war. For a more intimate look, the After Action Reports for the various fighting units can be obtained from the National Archives.

RFA & LMP: If you could ask young readers of Scott's journal one question after they finished reading your book, what would that question be?

WDM: I would ask them if they thought that I had made Scott's experiences in any way glamorous or attractive. This was not my intention.

RFA & LMP: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading The Journal of Scott Pendleton Collins?

WDM: I would like them to realize the amazing courage of those who fought in WWII, and who stormed the beaches of Normandy. Scott sees a young German soldier close up and realizes that it is not a demonized 'other' that he is facing but another human being who, like him, also believes in his country. I hope that young people understand this and realize further that people can go beyond the fighting and also use their common humanity to work toward peace.

Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.

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