Walter Dean Myers, the award-winning children’s author best known for his many novels that portray the often difficult life experiences of young African-Americans, died on July 1 following a brief illness. He was 76.
The list of accolades for Myers’s books is sizeable: Monster (HarperCollins, 1999) won the first-ever Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature for young adults in 2000; his books have also earned two Newbery Honors (1989 for Scorpions, HarperCollins; 1992 for Somewhere in the Darkness Scholastic), a Caldecott Honor (Harlem, Scholastic, 1998); five Coretta Scott King awards, and the inaugural Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2012 he was named the third National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress and completed his two-year term, during which he used the slogan “Reading is not optional,” in January.
Myers was born in Martinsburg, W.Va., in 1937. His mother died in childbirth when he was two years old and Walter’s father George sent him to live with George’s former wife Florence Dean and her husband Herbert, who raised Walter in their Harlem home. As a boy, Myers knew he was smart, but said he didn’t do well in school. A speech impediment made class work more difficult and a teacher suggested that writing out words might help. Myers began writing poems and stories from that early time. He also found comfort in books, both reading them and having them read to him by his mother.
During high school in New York, Myers’s writing became more polished and a teacher encouraged him to keep at it. He joined the army on his 17th birthday, as he realized there would be no money for him to go to college. When he finished a three-year enlistment, he worked a number of jobs and pursued his writing at night, eventually seeing some stories and poems published in magazines. That success sparked his consideration of writing as a career and soon after he entered and won a contest for picture book writers sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children in 1969 with the title Where Does the Day Go?
In the early 1970s his picture book career took off, and he was also working as an editor at Bobbs-Merrill. Myers said in interviews that the knowledge he gleaned about the business side of the industry from that early job enabled him to support himself as an author. By the mid ’70s he had begun writing stories for young adults, including Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff (Viking, 1975). He frequently wrote about African-American kids growing up in an urban environment facing tough decisions and sometimes dangerous situations. Though their circumstances are often difficult, many of his characters embrace and embody friendship, responsibility, and compassion, sounding a hopeful note.
Myers also wrote notable historical fiction and nonfiction that reflected the black experience, including The Glory Field (Scholastic, 1994); Now Is Your Time!: The African-American Struggle for Freedom (HarperCollins, 1991), and the biography Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary (Scholastic, 1993). Among that titles that he created in collaboration with his son Christopher Myers, an illustrator, are Harlem: A Poem (Scholastic, 1997), blues journey (Holiday House, 2003) and We Are America: Tribute from the Heart (HarperCollins, 2011). He was the author of more than 110 books and had several projects in the works. Forthcoming titles are Juba! (HarperCollins, April 2015) a YA novel inspired by the life of a young African-American dancer, On a Clear Day (Crown, September 2014) and a graphic novel adaptation of Monster (HarperCollins, TBA).
Myers’ longtime literary agent, Miriam Altshuler, shared this tribute: “Walter Dean Myers was a compassionate, wonderful, and brilliant man. He wrote about children who needed a voice and their stories told. His work will live on for generations to come. It was an honor to work with him for so many years.”
Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, said: “We are deeply saddened by the passing of erudite and beloved author Walter Dean Myers. Walter’s many award-winning books do not shy away from the sometimes gritty truth of growing up. He wrote books for the reader he once was, books he wanted to read when he was a teen. He wrote with heart and he spoke to teens in a language they understood. For these reasons, and more, his work will live on for a long, long time.”
Phoebe Yeh, v-p, publisher, Crown Books for Young Readers, who had worked with Myers since 1995, said, “I got to know Walter by working with him on his books: gritty urban fiction about artists, writers, basketball players, a kid in a juvenile facility, a high school shooting. There was a poem about a soldier in Vietnam that received the Jane Addams Peace Award (an irony that we loved); a soccer novel that he co-wrote with a teen. He was a Renaissance man. He collected photos and memorabilia, he was a Cordon Bleu chef, he made pate for his cat. He played multiple instruments. There were conversations about London theatre (good and bad), beloved Connie and Chris. And visits to juvenile facilities. He told me, “I want to talk to the kids that never get visits. I could have been one of those kids. I want them to know what I’ve learned – that you should never give up. That there is always hope for a second chance.”
Richard Robinson, chairman, president and CEO of Scholastic Inc., said in a statement: “Walter Dean Myers changed the face of children’s literature by representing the diversity of the children of our nation in his award-winning books. He was a deeply authentic person and writer who urged other authors, editors and publishers not only to make sure every child could find him or herself in a book, but also to tell compelling and challenging stories that would inspire children to reach their full potential. My favorite quote from Walter is a clarion call to embrace the power of books to inform and transform our lives – he said, ‘Once I began to read, I began to exist.’ He will be missed by us all."
Myers is survived by Constance, as well as his two sons, Christopher and Michael Dean. He was predeceased by his daughter, Karen. In lieu of flowers the family requests that a donation be made to one of two charities: Literacy for Incarcerated Teens (for donation notification on the form, use email@example.com), and Children’s Defense Fund (for Honor/Memorial Information use Walter Dean Myers Donations, c/o Egmont USA, 443 Park Avenue South, Suite 806, New York, NY 10016).