Walter Dean Myers had a rough childhood.

His mother died when he was 2. His dad couldn't care for him, so Walter was sent from West Virginia to live with a foster family in New York City. He had a speech impediment, so kids teased him. Because he was big and could fight back, he did. So he got into trouble. A lot of trouble.

But young Walter loved to read, so he read and read and read. By the time he was about 10, he had figured something out: There were no people who looked like him in the books he read. "That's when I decided I didn't want to be black anymore," Myers told an audience at the National Book Festival in September.

Myers didn't stop being black, of course. He became an author of more than 70 books. In those books, he hopes that all kids -- regardless of their skin color -- will see themselves and their lives, even if those lives aren't perfect.

Myers, now 68, spoke with Tracy Grant about reading, writing and finding yourself in books.

Why did you become a writer?

I was in my last year of high school, and I wasn't going to school a lot at the time. But there was one teacher who understood everything that was going on without me telling her. She told me, "The one thing you can do very well is write. Whatever you do, you should continue to write." . . . It was like a two-minute conversation in the hallway between classes, but it made all the difference.

Books about fantasy, wizards and dragons are very popular now. The books you write are much more realistic. Why is that?

We read to understand our own humanity. We look for ourselves in books. . . . [So many] of the kids in New York City public schools are either African Americans or Latinos. My job is to take these young people, no matter their circumstances, and make their drama a human drama. [I need to make sure they] find their lives in a book.

What do you say to people who think your books -- with gangs and guns and drugs -- are too grim for kids?

Young people have to be able to confront these problems intellectually before they meet them on the street. In a good family, in a good home, all these problems are confronted around the dinner table [and] as people read the newspaper. But in many places, there are no places to confront these problems. That's why I write books.

What's the first thing you remember writing?

I did a lot of poetry in the third and fourth grades. . . . In fourth or fifth grade I had my first poem published in the school magazine.

What advice would you give kids who want to be writers?

I've never met a good writer who wasn't first a reader. Second, I outline my stories. I think that's important. It forces me to think about what I'm doing. Also, understand that writing is work.

Walter Dean Myers says kids need to "find their lives in a book."