Talking with Walter Dean Meyers
“You have to not love the words.” What a surprising thing for author Walter Dean Myers to say!
After all, his words have been recognized for excellence and have received Newbery Honors, Coretta Scott King Medals, the Printz Award, and, most recently, the very first Odyssey Award for excellence in children’s and young adult audiobooks for JAZZ, produced by Live Oak Media.
After three weeks of writing the poetry of JAZZ, Meyers took a moment to reread what he had enjoyed creating so much. “I realized it sucked big-time,” he says.
So Myers “chucked” most of what he had written and began again. He listened and wrote to the jazz music he was trying to evoke with his words. “It was really a breakthrough,” he recalls.
The author enjoys that some young people may elect to listen to his books rather than read the print version. “I think that’s cool because what you want is to establish an intimacy between yourself and your reader. You can establish that through the written word or through the audiobook.” Over the years Myers has learned that “once you bring them into your space, they’ll come back.”
Producer and fellow author Bruce Coville says of Meyers’s work, “You believe his people when they’re talking because he catches the truth in their words.” Coville recorded “The Visit,” a Myers short story that made the most of the full-cast audio format, an approach Myers especially appreciates.
What authors have managed to establish that important connection with Walter Dean Myers? When he’s working and needs a break, he turns to a series of poets, including childhood favorite Dylan Thomas. He normally listens to nonfiction, however. “Right now, I’m playing with the idea of a self-help book and thinking of an approach for black teens. What can I do that will be really useful to them?” Imagine Myers in his writing room, listening to a slew of self-help audiobooks and being open to ideas that he can transform for a new audience, an audience that might never visit a library but can download in a heartbeat.
There is one young man, however, who is not anxious to hear his advice. JAZZ is a picture book, and the illustrations are by Christopher Myers, the author’s son. “I didn’t see any of the illustrations until they were done,” his father says. JAZZ is best enjoyed as a read-along--the child can look at Christopher Myers’s vibrant illustrations and listen to the music they inspired.
“One of the things I like most about JAZZ is that it truly is a collaboration,” notes Walter Myers. This is not the first such collaboration between Walter Dean Myers and Live Oak Media. BLUES JOURNEY also won accolades and was even performed at the Kennedy Center. There is a trust among artists that Myers sums up when he says “Live Oak Media gets it.”
Perhaps that spirit of collaboration is best summed up by the author as he recalls first showing his JAZZ poetry to his son. “There are no words I love so much I can’t change.” Perhaps that is why the words work, whether on paper or spoken.--Ellen Myrick
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