Writer Walter Dean Myers died on Wednesday after a brief illness at age 76, leaving mourners in the adult world and young readers who saw themselves in his books. He expanded the face of publishing so that many children of color saw themselves reflected in his work.
Myers wrote more than 100 books, most of them in the genre of fiction for young adults (YA). Most of those dealt with the challenges of urban life for young black men, and the complicated moral minefield they have to negotiate to stay in one piece.
“A turning point for me was the discovery of a short story by James Baldwin about the black urban experience,” Myers wrote. “It gave me permission to write about my own experiences. Somehow I always go back to the most turbulent periods of my own life. I write books for the troubled boy I once was.”
Walter Milton Myers was born on Aug. 12, 1937, in Martinsburg, W.Va., but he didn’t stay there long. His mother died in childbirth when he was a toddler, and his father, George, sent Walter and his brother Mickey to stay with a Harlem couple he knew, Florence and Herbert Dean. (Florence was George Myers’ first wife. In tribute to the parents who raised him, Myers added Dean to his name.) The Deans raised the boys in a loving, protected environment, although young Walter often got tantalizing glimpses of the Harlem street life he wasn’t allowed to investigate up close. He was already a rabid reader when he started school at Public School 125. He was one of those kids who was intelligent, but not academically inclined. And he got teased a lot for having a speech impediment.
Tall, thin and with that speech impediment, Myers was smart, angry and, as he told the Los Angeles Times in 1997, “always in trouble.” (He didn’t tolerate being teased for his stutter.) He hovered around the fringes of Harlem’s young criminal life, but it was reading that saved him.
“Reading pushed me to discover worlds beyond my landscape,” he wrote on his website, “especially during dark times when my uncle was murdered and my family became dysfunctional with alcohol and grief.”
Fortunately for Myers, a favorite teacher recognized his talent for writing and pushed him to continue with it, no matter what. Gratified, he listened.
He dropped out of high school, but kept writing. He entered the military and served three years in the Army — and kept writing. He wrote columns for the local newspaper and stories for small magazines. His big break came when he won a contest sponsored by The Council on Interracial Books for Children. His winning entry, Where Does the Day Go?, was a picture book. Eventually, he segued into YA books, and became something of an icon for young male readers, especially young African-Americans.
Whether it was a best-selling book about a young man’s trial following a crime in Harlem (Monster), or a novel about the Vietnam War (Fallen Angels), Myers’ readers saw themselves in his books.
And he often saw himself in them. He made a practice of visiting young men in juvenile detention centers. He said in several interviews that he liked to spend time with the kids who didn’t receive visitors — the boys who seem to have been forgotten — to tell them not to give up.
Myers was an indefatigable circuit rider for readers and literature, wherever the cause took him, to juvenile hall or the richly set tables at literary fundraisers.
He was also, says Phoebe Yeh, publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers, “a Renaissance man.” He played several musical instruments and was a Le Cordon Bleu-trained cook. (Yeh says Myers liked to make pâté for his cat.)
By the time he died, Myers had been showered with almost all the awards a YA author could get. He’s had two Newbery Honor Books and a Caldecott Medal, and was a three-time finalist for the National Book Award. He also received an unprecedented six Coretta Scott King Book Awards and the inaugural Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. And he was appointed the Library of Congress’ third “National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.” (The slogan he chose: “Reading Is Not Optional.”)
Walter Dean Myers died at age 76. He’s survived by his wife, Constance, and his children Christopher (an artist who often collaborated with him on children’s picture books) and Michael Dean. His daughter, Karen, died earlier.