AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: WALTER DEAN MYERS
Walter Dean Myers is by far one of the best children’s writers out there. His stories are real and tangible, with plot turns and twists that will keep flippin’ the pages. He has garnered the attention of masses of young adult readers in search of a novel that they can relate to. Read what some SIL reader’s have to say about their favorite author.
Waymond Jennings, 12
“My favorite book is Scorpions,
because out of all of the books that I
read, I can relate to this one the most.
He includes every little detail within
the surroundings of the character, so
you get a better understanding of
what’s going on. I would like for Walter
Dean Myers to continue to write
books, specifically for boys around 10-
18 years old because sometimes, it just
feels good to know that someone is
going through what you are going
through because now you know how
to get through and handle it.”
Christopher McDavid, 12
“Walter Dean Myers is my favorite
author. I like the way he writes. He
writes about struggles that real
African-Americans go through today.
For example, the book Monster is
about one boys struggle to get out of
jail. He is accused of murder and is on
trial. So many people can relate to his
books. Walter Dean Myers was also
from Harlem, so he writes about the
experiences that he went through.”
Jamal Peterson, 12
“Walter Dean Myers is a great inspiring
author. He has such a unique style of
writing. He pulls the reader into the
book and makes them attracted to it.
I like the fact that he makes the characters
and events believable. His book,
Slam, is one of his greatest. I give it
Brian Edmundson, 12
“My favorite book is, A Handbook for
Boys, by Walter Dean Myers. This is my
favorite book because it’s a book
about what life is like now, and you
really could relate to it. His style of
writing uses a lot of dialogue like how
we talk today. I would like to see more
pictures because you can get a better
understanding of what’s going on.”
“It’s not easy being a F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat) immigrant in America….especially when you’re the new girl in a snooty private high school where all the girls blindly idolize the same stuck-up rich girl. It’s enough to make any frosh trying to fit in go nutty! But try pulling off “cool” when your culture-shocked parents insist the whole family wear the same red-and-gold puffy San Francisco 49ers football jacket when it’s cold out. What about having to go to the movies with your family on a Friday night (a nightmare in itself) and having your mother sneak in a bag of microwave popcorn instead of buying a tub at the theater like everyone else? It’s embarrassing enough to die over!”
Melissa de la Cruz’s humorous, semi-autobiographical new teen novel, Fresh off the Boat (HarperCollins, April 2005, $15.99, Ages 12 up) depicts the growing pains of being a teen through the eyes of 14 year old Vicenza Arambullo, a newly arrived immigrant whose family has just relocated to San Francisco from the Philippines. Every teen, at some point or another, has experienced the ups and downs of wanting to fit in and wanting to be a part of something. Cruz’s novel is a comical tale of a 14 year olds journey to self-discovery, love and first crushes, and accepting the true value of self appreciation. An accomplished writer who has garnered success through the popular Au Pairs series, Cruz spent some time with Say it Loud! Magazine to discuss her new book, as well as share her advice on being a writer.
Say It Loud: In your own words, how would you describe your book, Fresh off the Boat?
Melissa De la Cruz: I would say it’s a fun, but also heartfelt, story of an immigrant teenager’s first year in America that was loosely based on my own personal history. I didn’t want to write a memoir. My first year in America… I could never forget that. My family could never forget how different it was from life in Manila and many of the struggles that we went through. The novel has always been in my head and something that I wanted to write about; being 14 years old, being so confused, so insecure, and on top of that, being new to the country. When I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of books about girls of different ethnicities and different backgrounds. All of the books were about white American girls, and I really wanted to write about someone who wasn’t a white American girl, but who was still just as compelling. I just wanted to write a really fun, mainstream book, without writing about the typical characters.
I thought that a young adult novel in a fun, chicklet format would be good for this book, so it wouldn’t be a very serious story. It really shows the book is alive, fresh, and fun.
SIL: In what ways, rather, how much of you and your experiences as a teen are intertwined in Vicenza Arambullo’s character?
De la Cruz: I think she is a little more sure of herself than I was at that age, and maybe a little bit stronger. She has a sense of humor, but wants to fit in really badly although she is also feeling repulsed by it. I definitely felt that in the same way; just really wanting to be that Benetton, Patagonia wearing “part of the pact” girl, but also kind of liking that I was this outsider. When you don’t fit in when you are a teenager, I think you always think, at one point I will or I realize that this may not be the environment that’s best for me right now. I went to a very small private school and there were like forty girls in each class. Everybody was very much the same so if you weren’t like that, you stood out so badly.
SIL: Vicenza seems to represent the “average teenage girl” who wants to fit in, but she’s coming from another country, the Philippines, to San Francisco and the transition might be a little difficult. Vicenza is reminiscent of Katie from the film “Mean Girls”, who comes back from Africa and tries to fit into a new school, as well as the click, “The Plastics”. Vicenza is the icon of the average teen who is trying to find her way. What are your thoughts about how teens view the need for acceptance and fitting in?
De la Cruz: I think teens, especially in your teen years, just really want to be invisible and be somebody that nobody can make fun of or bully. You just don’t want to draw attention to yourself. You want to be part of the pact, part of the herd. Part of Vicenza idolizes the popular girls. One of the things that always struck me was why are people popular? They just have this confidence about themselves. They are the teenagers who don’t seem to feel insecure. When you are a teen, people become your friends for the wrong reasons. I think teenagers don’t really know enough yet about the world. Especially now because it is a very materialistic world, a very brand name oriented culture. When I was growing up, it was like; you have to have these Guess jeans, but now it’s like Louis Vuitton and Jimmy Choo, which is even more expensive. I think teens are definitely very sensitive to that, but on the other side of that, I think teens are a lot more sophisticated now too. I’ve been to readings around the country and I’ve seen these twelve year old girls and they’re so smart and so much more fabulous now, than I ever was at that age. I think kids are just growing up faster now, so maybe it’s a little bit different and they’re not so into that too. They do like the story about the “outsider”.
SIL: What would you say the character of Isobel represents to Vicenza?
De la Cruz: I’ve always seen Isobel as the kind of outsider who really doesn’t care about fitting in. Here is somebody who is confident in herself, who is okay with being different and accepting it. She shows Vicenza that there is more than one way that you can celebrate yourself and not only be in the popular group, but still be happy. She was based on a friend of mine from high school who was like that. She was Italian, not French, but she was just as much an immigrant, a new immigrant, to the U.S. Part of her appeal was that she just never cared that she didn’t look like the popular girls, that she didn’t dress like the popular girls, or that she spoke in a funny accent. She was just alright with herself and very comfortable. Anytime Vicenza sees that, she wants to emulate that more; somebody who is going to be able to separate from the pact.
SIL: What do you want your readers to take away from the story? Is there a particular message that you wanted to convey or focus on?
De la Cruz: I really want it to be a fun story. I really want it to be entertaining. I also wanted readers, especially readers who are not fitting in who had the same experience, to realize that it’s going to be ok. When I was fourteen and I was crying in the bathroom, I thought that my life would always suck and that would always be how it was going to be, but its not. Part of it is like I grew up and I wrote this book. This is a huge triumph for me and I hope that what readers take away from this is that sometimes your adolescent years aren’t the best years of your life, but at one point you are going to look back at them and if you survived them, you are a better person. I hope that they take away from the story that it’s really ok to be different, even though nobody is paying attention to you right now or you’re really having a difficult time. Maybe you don’t have enough money for those Jimmy Choo’s or those Chanel bags, but it’s better to be your own person.
SIL: How would you describe your style of writing? What is it that you want to bring forth and how is it relayed in the characters?
De la Cruz: I worked on that first chapter so hard. . My editor and I worked on it. It took several months of really polishing it, because we really wanted to draw the reader in immediately to see how Vicenza was thinking and to see her desperation and anxiety. I had to put my head in that character’s voice and really feel and almost relive what it was like, because that definitely happened all the time in my life. I would forget that it was Friday and I would think, oh, you know it’s the movie theater, and then it would be like me and my family and everybody else would be with their clicks and with their friends, or with their dates. It was excruciatingly humiliating to be in that situation. I really wanted to emulate the iconic Friday night of my life, so I decided to write in the first person to make it more immediate. We thought that we would really do it with that one scene in the beginning of the book to show Vicenza with her family, but also her relationship with the people who she went to school with. They are there too at the theater, but she was so far away from their orbit. They don’t even really take notice of her and when they do, it’s when they ask her to take the trash away.
I definitely choose that scene to start the book, because I didn’t want to start it at school. It was also a really powerful memory of my adolescent life; being at the movies and feeling like, oh my gosh, – microwave popcorn. My parents never let us buy our own Coke. All the details I just remember. My dad always asking questions.
SIL: What would you say your writing mantra is? Your ritual for writing and for getting ideas, especially for a teen audience?
De la Cruz: I write everyday! I try to write everyday. Most of the time I work either the minute I get up or the afternoons from 5-9pm. I can’t seem to write in the middle of the day, for some reason. I used to have a day job and I also felt comfortable writing actually on the job.
When I think about a teen audience, I always think about what I would like to read when I was that age. I definitely loved all the Sweet Valley High, all the fun and entertaining books. I didn’t want Fresh of the Boat to be too messaged or to be a preachy story. I didn’t want that at all. I wanted it to be dynamic and fun. I think I write well for the teen years because I always really feel like that. I think a lot of young adult writers will say the same thing that they never really grew up. I could remember high school so vividly, so clearly. It’s all fun. I think life is still like high school. People never really get over pettiness and group dynamics, clicks, and wanting to fit in.
SIL: To a teenager interested in penning their first novel, what advice would you offer?
De la Cruz: I would say keep writing. Never get discouraged. Never listen to the nay sayers. There are a lot of people who will encourage you and there is also a lot of obstacles too like, oh my God, you’re never going to make money off of this? Do you think you’re good enough to be a writer? I was always very quiet about it, because I just didn’t want to defend it to anybody. It was my own personal thing and I never knew anybody in publishing, I didn’t know one thing about getting an agent or getting a book deal. Nothing! I did a lot of research and I went to the library. I bought a book; I think its called Writers and Agents…about how to do it. Everybody would say nobody will listen to you. I sent out twenty copies of my first novel when I was twenty two years old, and I got an agent from that. We didn’t sell the book. I wrote another book, found another agent and we still didn’t sell the book. I was twenty-seven at this point and saying, oh my, God! It’s never going to happen to me. I found the agent through the internet, because the internet was now like the main way to research how to find these people. I found agents who sold my third novel. My first published novel was actually my third written novel. I also applied to M.F.A. writing programs that I didn’t get in to. Some of my friends, they would just keep applying until they got in. I didn’t get in, but I got published so I figured, I don’t need the MFA now. It’s very hard to be a writer, because you constantly have to push back against all these negatives or obstacles in your path. I would tell somebody who really wanted to do it that you really get published if you want it bad enough. Someone who is motivated with more talent and luck will definitely get published.
SIL: What should we expect from Melissa de la Cruz in the future?
De la Cruz: I do hope to write a sequel for the book. Hopefully, the book will do well and they’ll want one. I have wanted to do that. I’ve always wanted to continue Vicenza’s story. I also write the AU Pairs series, so we have a sequel called Skinny Dipping that comes out this June. Those are my foreign escapist, totally saucy, sexy teen books. I also have a new series called, Blue Blood, which is a teen fantasy book coming out next year from Hyperion.
SIL: Any final words for our Say it Loud! readers?
De la Cruz: It’s been really fun! I get a lot of emails from girls that want to be writers and I always tell them the same thing – to keep writing and don’t give up. One day, you are going to get that yes. It’s going to be so exciting that I think if you want to do it, it’s one of the most fun ways to earn a living.
Melissa de la Cruz grew up in Manila and San Francisco, and is a writer whose work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Marie Claire and The New York Times. She has authored the novels Cat’s Meow (Scribner 2001) and The Au Pairs (Simon & Schuster 2004), and co-authored the non-fiction books How to Become Famous in Two Weeks or Less (Ballantine 2003) and The Fashionista Files: Adventures in Four-Inch Heels and Faux Pas (Ballantine 2004). She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband.
Review by Malawi Boyce
“Stolen from her village, sold to the highest bidder, fifteen year old Amari has only one thing left – her hope” (Simon & Schuster 2006) Copper Sun, by Sharon M. Draper, depicts a young African girls account of being sold into slavery.
Copper Sun has elicited overwhelming response from both students and teachers. English teacher, Malawi Boyce, shared this powerful novel with her 8th grade middle school students. Let’s look at why Ms. Boyce has selected Copper Sun as a need to read novel.
Ms. Malawi Boyce, English Teacher: “Sweat, blood, and tears run through the souls of Black Folks and still we rise. For years, the souls of Blacks were enslaved, raped, beaten, and thrown in the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Are you capable of enduring this much torture and surviving? Let me take you through the life of someone who is.
Amari, a fifteen-year old native of Africa, enjoys life in the plush green meadows of her native land until European slave traders invade it. After being skeptical of the “pale strangers” sudden arrival, Amari warns her family not to be so welcoming with customary traditions and festivities; their hospitality proves to be the downfall of an entire village, a race of people, and thousands of generations to come. Betrayed by her neighboring Ashanti tribesman, Amari witnesses the brutal slaughtering of her entire village.
Sharon Draper, renowned author of several young adult books, has written a book that is guaranteed to stop your heart. Copper Sun details the graphic experience of a fifteen-year old girl that is traded for silk and spices to the Europeans. She lives through the middle passage with gripping details of what many history books may not reveal.
Please don’t think this is another one of those biased books about slavery. With three years of research before writing this book, Draper is sure to reveal both sides of the rusty coin. Throughout the novel, Draper continues to remind us that while Blacks were treated with malice, not all of us were hated by whites, nor were all of us friends. With a cast of characters that will surely keep you waiting and wanting more, Draper’s novel seems to be a meshing of Things Fall Apart, by Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe and Alex Haley’s, Roots. Anyone with an absence of the Black Holocaust will walk away with a new perspective of what we have endured.
My students were fascinated and devastated at the same time. Any author that can reach the heart and soul of an audience must be great. Copper Sun has proven to be a great history lesson and experience for anyone, adults included.”
Interested in reading more from Sharon M. Draper?
Check out her official website at for a list of the author’s titles at www.sharondraper.com
Ms. Boyce teaches English Language Arts at the Ronald Edmonds Learning Center in Brooklyn, NY