Children’s book and young adult author Walter Dean Myers managed to merge Black youth culture with literature. Myers experienced a rough childhood growing up in New York. At age two, he was given to his foster parent Herbert and Florence Dean after his mother’s death. Adopting the middle name “Dean” to honor the love and affection the Deans showed him. His life revolved around his neighborhood and church.
Their love was needed as Myers’ speech impediment lead to some trouble at school. But a turning point came when his teacher suggested using writing to channel his frustration. He continued writing short stories and poetry into high school before quitting at age 17 to join the military. Upon being discharged, he went from job to job trying to find his voice until reading “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin.
Soon, he began writing for various publications before winning a contest, which leads to his first children’s book. Much of his work channeled his troubled teenage years and growing up in Harlem, New York. His exploration of Black young culture was unprecedented in children’s and young adult literature. He went to published best-selling titles such as Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff, Fallen Angels, Monster, Hoops, and Scorpions. During his lifetime, Myers was a five-time Coretta Scott King Award winner along with being a Newbery Medal, Hans Christian Anderson, and National Book Award finalist. From 2012 to 2013, he served as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, becoming the first Black person to be granted this honor.
In his later years, Myers continued to write children’s books and young adult literature with his son Christopher doing the illustrations. He passed away on July 1, 2014, after a brief illness. Even after his death, his work continued to be published with his last book, Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History, and the short story, “Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push,” coming out in 2017.
As a Black teenage male, I had very few authors who appealed to me outside of the few Black authors that were required reading. Discovering Walter Dean Myers’ works in junior high made me feel seen and heard in a way I had never felt before. He captured the experience of Black youth without pandering or being outdated. He made me strive to be better than some of the circumstances he wrote in his novels, and for that, I want to say thank to Walter Dean Myers for shaping my adolescence and wanting to highlight my culture.
Books transmit values. They explore Our common humanity. What is the message when some people are not represented in those books?
- Walter Dean Myers