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Interview: August 2011

August 2011

Walter Dean Myers has written more than 85 books for children and young adults, including the award-winning MONSTER, FALLEN ANGELS, SLAM!, JAZZ and HARLEM. Now, in the second installment of his Cruisers series, Myers explores the world of competitive chess as seen through the eyes of a group of middle-school misfits.'s Donna Volkenannt spoke with Myers about his own experience playing chess and how drug usage is handled in CHECKMATE. He also discusses his sixth-grade crush, the essentials of classic literature, gypsy cabs, and what's in store for the Cruisers. In CHECKMATE, Zander and the Cruisers are asked to intervene after a fellow student at the Da Vinci Academy for the Gifted and Talented is caught buying drugs. What inspired this plot line?

Walter Dean Myers: I've always thought that there are two aspects of all human problems. First, there is the idea of doing something we know we shouldn't, and then there is the supporting idea that we have the problem because we are somehow unique in our feelings and needs. The Cruisers recognize their shared basic humanity and, by sharing their problems and discomfits, are often able to confront them comfortably.

TRC: The game of chess and the pressure of competing in chess tournaments are highlighted in CHECKMATE. Do you play chess? If so, how old were you when you learned how to play? If not, how did you learn the intricacies of the game?

WDM: I started playing chess around 12. Chess stops being fun for me when it gets to the level of "you have to win!" or you've somehow failed as a human being.

TRC: Zander's Uncle Guy and a fellow police officer take the Cruisers --- along with Sidney and Cody --- on a ride to show them the deadly effects of drugs. What do you hope young readers will take away after reading this scene?

WDM: When I speak to fourth and fifth graders, I routinely get negative reactions to drug usage, delinquency, etc. I know by experience that many of these same young people will, however, end up using drugs and getting into other kinds of trouble. What I wanted to show in this scene is that sometimes some very good kids also have difficulties.

TRC: In one scene, Sidney and Cody arrive in a gypsy cab to meet up with the Cruisers. For those who don't live in a big city, what is a gypsy cab?

WDM: In most urban cities, the taxi industry is tightly regulated with either meters or fixed prices. However, there are often alternative vehicles on the street that negotiate fares. In New York these are often called "gypsy" cabs.

TRC: Caren Culpepper is a seventh-grader who knows how to pull Zander's strings, which totally throws him off guard. How did you come up with this sassy character?

WDM: Caren comes directly from a girl I knew in the sixth grade. Sometimes I liked her, and sometimes I hated her. The bottom line is that she was a lot smarter than I was and took advantage of the fact that I didn't want my friends to know that I liked her.

TRC: Zander becomes aware of media bias in coverage and placement of stories about minorities. What do you think we can do to change this bias?

WDM: The more we exercise and support a free press, the better it will be.

TRC: Along with Zander and the Cruisers, a few characters are introduced in CHECKMATE. Do you have plans for Uncle Guy, Caren, Cody, or any others to have greater roles in follow-up books?

WDM: Caren will always be around to torment Zander. Cody will be returning as well.

TRC: You've written more than 85 books for children and young adults. What drew you to focus your talent on books for this age group?

WDM: My answer to this question keeps changing. My latest thoughts are that I simply don't know why I write more for young people than adults. When I look at my earliest writings, I see that, although I was writing for adult magazines and newspapers, I wrote about young people. Another reason could be that my own teen and preteen years were so unusual.

TRC: In addition to being a writer, you give workshops for students across the country. What are some of the topics you cover?

WDM: In my workshops, I often discuss writing from a structural point of view. If more students understood how structure is an important tool in the process, they would become better writers.

TRC: In a previous interview with us, you suggested that young writers should read as much as possible, including classic literature. Which classics are good places to start?


TRC: According to your bio, you joined the Army when you were a teenager. How, if at all, did being in the Army prepare you for your career as a writer?

WDM: I don't think the Army helped very much with my writing. I wished I had written more during this period.

TRC: What are you working on now, and what's next for the Cruisers?

WDM: In the next book, LaShonda is offered a wonderful opportunity, but one that might take her away from her needful brother. She faces the question: How much are we expected to give up of ourselves so that we may include others in our lives?