A Writer And His Father, And 'A Barrier Between Us'

Originally published on June 17, 2011 10:39 am

Walter Dean Myers grew up in Harlem, the son of a janitor. He became an author, writing young adult fiction that's especially popular with teenage readers. But as he tells his son, Christopher, there was one person Myers always wanted his writing to impress: his dad.

"He bought you a typewriter at one point," Christopher says. "Why do you think he knew that that was important to you?"

"Well, I was working at 14," Walter says. "I saved my money up, and I went to buy a typewriter. And at that point, Mom was having a drinking problem. And she spent it up. And so he went out and bought me a typewriter, a Royal."

Soon after, Walter Dean Myers started typing. And he stuck with it — today, his bibliography includes nearly 100 books. He collaborates on some of them with Christopher, working together as writer and illustrator. Their connection is one he never had with his own father.

"He never said anything good about my writing," Walter says. "And that really, that really hurt, that really bothered me a lot."

Trying to make an impression on his father, Herbert Dean, Walter started to use some of the stories he'd heard around the house in his writing.

"I even would take his ghost stories and publish them," Walter says. "And I would show them to him, and he would never comment on them. So when I did that, then I said, he hates me. You know, he hates me."

"Did you ever ask him about it?" Christopher asks.

"No, no. When he was dying, I brought him a book that I'd just finished. And uh, he picked it up and he looked at it, and then he just laid it down.

"And then after he died, I went to his house and went through his papers. And I would see X's where his signature should be. The man couldn't read. I mean, that was why he never said anything about my writing. It just tore me up, I mean, I could have read him a story at the hospital."

"Right," Christopher says.

"I could have read something to him. But he was ashamed of the fact that he could not read. And that was — that was a barrier between us all my life."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Katie Simon.

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C: his father. Myers' son Christopher asked him about that.

CHRISTOPHER MYERS: He bought you a typewriter at one point. Why do you think he knew that that was important to you?

WALTER MYERS: Now, my father told ghost stories at times. So I even would take his ghost stories and publish them. And I would show them to him, and he would never comment on them. So when I did that, then I said, he hates me. You know, he hates me.

MYERS: Did you ever ask him about it? Did you ever say, well...

MYERS: Then after he died, I went to his house and went through his papers. And I would see X's, you know, where his signature should be, and the man couldn't read. I mean, that was why he never said anything about my writing. It just tore me up. I mean, I could have read him a story at the hospital. I could have read something to him. But he was ashamed of the fact that he could not read. And that was a barrier between us all my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

: Walter Dean Myers remembering his father Herbert Dean at StoryCorps in New York. Walter and his son Christopher now work on books together as writer and illustrator. Their conversation will be archived at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. And you can get the podcast at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.