Remembering Walter Dean Myers, 1937-2014

walter dean myers_2On July 1, 2014, Walter Dean Myers died in Manhattan at the age of 76 following a brief illness. Since hearing the news, it has been difficult for his legions of fans as well as those who worked with him in the publishing industry to imagine the world of children’s literature without him in it. With more than 100 picture books, middle-grade and young adult novels, poetry collections, and works of nonfiction under his belt and a lifetime spent championing the underprivileged from racially diverse backgrounds in his work, Myers was one of the most prolific and influential authors of his time.

Myers was best known and respected for his ability to write starkly realistic and gritty portrayals of life in the inner city. He accurately and eloquently captured the voice of millions of urban poor from non-white backgrounds, perhaps, because he came of age under similar circumstances. He was born the fourth of five siblings in Martinsburg, West Virginia, on August 12, 1937. After his mother died when he was just shy of two years old, Myers was sent to live with his father’s first wife and her new husband in Harlem, New York, and though his foster parents tried to be supportive, resources were tight.

monsterThroughout his childhood, Myers had trouble in school. Though he loved to read and write stories, he suffered from a speech impediment and was never a top student. In fact, he spent more time shooting hoops and getting into trouble with friends than attending classes or studying. At the age of 17, he dropped out of the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in order to join the Army.

Three years later when Myers returned home, he went straight to work rather than attend a college he couldn’t afford. He earned a paycheck doing odd jobs in construction, on factory floors, and as a messenger in Lower Manhattan. Meanwhile, he also began to write again. In his spare time, he contributed articles and stories to a number of publications, including one he wrote for Essence, in which he honored his half-brother who died fighting in Vietnam.

In 1969 Myers got his first big break. After entering — and winning — a contest for African-American writers in Writers’ Digest, he was handed $500 and a publishing contract for his first book Where Does the Day Go?. The picture book won an award from the Council on Interracial Books for Children. It would be the first of many accolades bestowed on Myers throughout his career.

Fallen AngelsFor the next 45 years, Myers penned dozens of books about everything from drive-by shootings and drug-related violence to teen romance to life as a soldier during Vietnam and the Iraq Wars.

His list of awards is equally impressive. It includes two Newbery Honor Medals (Scorpions; Somewhere in the Darkness), three National Book Award finalists (Monster; Autobiography of My Dead Brother; Lockdown), the first Michael L. Printz Award (Monster), five Coretta Scott King Awards (Slam!; Now Is Your Time!; Fallen Angels; Motown and Didi; The Young Landlords), and the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults. His books that will be posthumously published are On a Clear Day (September 2014), Juba! (April 2015) and the upcoming graphic novel adaptation of Monster.

jazzWalter Dean Myers also collaborated with his son, illustrator Christopher Myers, on several books, including the Storylines Award-winning We Are America: A Tribute from the Heart, the Caldecott and Coretta Scott King Honor Book Harlem and the Coretta Scott King Honor Book Jazz. Christopher said that working on books with his father was one of their ways of “talking with each other. We are privileged to be able to let the world in on our conversation.”

Aside from his expansive body of work that aimed to meet disenfranchised kids at their own level, Myers was both a supporter and an outspoken critic of the current state of education in America. As the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature from 2012-2013, he worked tirelessly to promote his platform “Reading is Not an Option,” and enforce the idea that literacy should be a given, not a luxury, and that all kids — regardless of race, background, color or economic status — should be allowed the chance to try for a brighter future. In recent years, Myers also helped jumpstart the much-needed argument for an increase in multicultural literature. In a recent piece published in the New York Times, he stated that “of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people.” He further noted: “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

autobiography dead brotherUnfortunately, Walter Dean Myers’ life was cut short at the height of his career. Shortly after the news of his death spread, thousands of mourners gathered in person and on the Internet to honor the legendary author and his unmistakable legacy. Miriam Altshuler, his literary agent, had a comment to share that echoed the sentiment of many the world over. “Walter Dean Myers was a compassionate, wonderful, and brilliant man. He wrote about children who needed a voice and their stories told,” she said. “His work will live on for generations to come.”

Indeed, he will be missed. Many years ago when I was a few years out of college, I had taken a job at Scholastic as a publicist. Like any new worker bee in the publishing industry, I was overwhelmed by the abundance of talent I was exposed to on a daily basis, from authors to illustrators, to those who excelled in both mediums. I devoured hundreds of knockout books during my time there and met many wonderful people, but perhaps the writer who most stuck out in my mind was Walter Dean Myers. He was humble in a way that only the truly gifted can be and when he talked to kids, he treated them like equals.

It is true that we need more multicultural books with diverse themes staring children of color who are underrepresented and often ignored. We need more books like Bad Boy, Harlem Summer, and Hoops — and to others — that they are important and should be heard. Earlier this year, Walter Dean Myers referred to himself in the New York Times as “the James Bond/Black Dynamite of children’s literature.” With his vast body of work and fearless devotion to his craft, the comparison is fitting. No doubt he has inspired a new generation of readers and writers to become just like him.

Originally posted on (July 7, 2014)

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