By: Pat Peters
August 12, 2017 marks the 80th anniversary of the birth of beloved author Walter Dean Myers. Myers passed away in 2014 after a 45-year-long career as an author of children and young adult books focused on the African-American experience.
Myers, born in West Virginia and reared in Harlem, said that he “found solace in books. My mother read to me from a very young age… Reading pushed me to discover worlds beyond my landscape, especially during dark times when my uncle was murdered and my family became dysfunctional with alcohol and grief.” (Myers) In school, his teachers encouraged him to write, but Myers left high school early to join the U.S. Army.
Shortly after returning from military service, Myers found the essay “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, which convinced him that he could write from his own experiences as an African-American. He wanted children and teens to be able to find their own stories reflected in his books. Looking back on his own childhood reading experiences, Myers said in an interview, “I understood that my life was different than the lives of children I saw on television or read about. I assumed, as so many children do today, that I was also different. Books depicting my family and neighborhood would have included me in the fabric of America.” (Whelan)
In his first successful writing venture, Myers “won the Council on Interracial Books for Children contest in 1969, which resulted in the publication of his first book, Where Does the Day Go? Since then, he has won more awards than any author for young adults, and [was] one of the most prolific writers, with more than 110 books to his credit.” (Myers)
Throughout his long career as an author, Myers wrote picture books, young adult novels, biographies, poetry and much more. His only (self-imposed) limitation was that he be true to his own identity and experiences. Myers was recognized for his commitment to writing engaging literature for young people with the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1994 and the Coretta Scott King—Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010 (its inaugural year) as well as being named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress in 2012.
Myers’ individual works won numerous awards and were named to multiple national and state best lists. His Vietnam War era novel, Fallen Angels, was awarded the Coretta Scott King Author Award in 1988. Monster, Myers’ novel about a teenager on trial for murder, won the first ever Michael L. Printz Award for young adult fiction as well as being a National Book Award Finalist and a New York Times Bestseller.
Myers was outspoken about the need to tell the truth in books for young adults. His works were frequently the targets of challenges, primarily due to the language and violence. He responded to the challenges to his award-winning Fallen Angels in his usual straightforward manner:
“Book challenges are, primarily, generated by the fear that a book will somehow damage a child by changing what is considered to be a valued norm. In my mind when a book touches upon a controversial subject it is precisely because the norm has already been significantly changed, and the author has had the courage to acknowledge this. Many of the challenges to Fallen Angels have dealt with the use of profanity in the book. The execution of war involves, on a very basic level, getting law abiding, and humane people into a mode that allows them to kill other human beings for whom they have no personal animosity. The use of profanity is part of the conversion process as is the dehumanizing effect of referring to an enemy with such terms as ‘gooks’ and ‘slants’. When I write a book that is liable to be challenged it is because I have detected a change in what is advertised as the accepted norm.” (Gallucci)
Myers maintained that he understood adults’ reasons for wanting to keep his books from children, but he responded to those challenges: “I…understood that the children I write about are usually regarded as the “troublemakers” and the ones least likely to succeed. It hardly came to me as a surprise that schools and teachers would not want their lives celebrated.” (Whelan) But he insisted that he didn’t intend for his work to be challenged: “I write to establish the humanity of the children I identify as my major audience. I’m not trying to push any boundaries.” (Whelan)
Walter Dean Myers believed in free speech as a fundamental right in order for people to reach their most authentic selves: “We express the concepts of our humanity and of our personal freedoms through speech. No people can fully realize their potential or be truly free if their speech is fettered.” (Whelan)
It was my privilege to meet Walter Dean Myers, and his son illustrator Christopher Myers, at the Association for Library Service to Children Institute in 2009 in Atlanta. In his presentation that evening, Myers displayed a charm and wit that probably served him well in any meeting with a detractor. His calm demeanor and gentle speech masked the fierce commitment and passion he held for giving African-American children a place to find themselves in literature and their non-African-American friends a place to understand. Meeting Mr. Myers that evening was truly an honor.
Thank you, Walter Dean Myers, for your lifetime of honest portrayals of the lives and experiences of African-American children and teens.
Gallucci, Kelly, and Sam Adler. (2014, Sep 25). 22 Authors on Censorship and Banned Books. Bookish. Retrieved from https://www.bookish.com/articles/22-authors-on-censorship-and-banned-books/
Walter Dean Myers website. Retrieved from http://walterdeanmyers.net/about/
Whelan, Debra Lau. (2013, Aug 9). Walter Dean Myers Talks Book-Banning, Writing for Troubled Kids. Blogging Censorship. Retrieved from https://ncacblog.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/walter-dean-myers-talks-book-banning-writing-for-troublemakers/
Pat Peters is director of the Decatur Public Library in Decatur, Texas. In her spare time, she is an adjunct professor of Library Science for Texas Woman’s University, having taught both graduate and undergraduate Children’s Literature and Youth Programming. Pat is the 2016-17 chair of the Texas Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee. Pat and her husband Jeff live in Denton, Texas. Pat can sometimes be found @PatriciaP628.