Friends, family members, colleagues, and those otherwise touched by the work of Walter Dean Myers gathered at Symphony Space in Manhattan on March 9 for an evening of rich and decidedly up-tempo readings, speeches, and performances to honor his life. Myers died on July 1, 2014 at age 76.
Hosting the evening’s events was Myers’s son and artist Christopher Myers, who reflected throughout the night on the gifts given to him by his father, while also welcoming the authors, artists, and musicians who joined him on stage.
As Christopher Myers explained, it was important to him that his father be memorialized in the manner he lived: with joy, vitality, and surrounded by the fortifying force of creativity. Thus, when he invited presenters to take part in the event, he asked them to celebrate his father’s legacy not through sober reflections, but by sharing their own work. Myers emphasized that his father not only reveled in the joy of creating stories, but also believed strongly that original creation is anchored in hard work. Throughout his career, he mentored young individuals who were just discovering their own voices, urging them to become better writers through persistence, and to continue to dream, because “part of the work is the work of dreaming,” he said.
The lineup of authors included Avi, Jason Reynolds, Emily Raboteau, Jacqueline Woodson, Wah-Ming Chang, and Brian Selznick, many of whom shared original pieces of writing inspired by Myers’s books or by Myers himself. Musical performers were Justin Hicks, Eisa Davis, Jomama Jones, and Helga Davis.
Avi, a close friend of Myers, said he connected with the late author over a shared love of “theatre, London, and photography,” among other things. He shared a story that spoke to the profound impact Myers’s work has on young readers. The men he was speaking to during a prison visit were less than engaged with Avi’s presentation, a fact that became clear when one individual shouted out: “You know anyone famous?” After thinking for a moment, Avi said: “I know Walter Dean Myers.” The inmates immediately became interested and wanted to know everything Avi could tell them about Myers. “They were readers,” Avi said. “They were his readers.... Walter spoke of them, to them, and for them” in his work, he said. Rather than lament the fact that the inmates were far more interested in his friend and colleague than what he had to say, his admiration for Myers grew exponentially after that day. “There was something Buddha-like about him,” Avi said, and reflected on the “searing, brutal honesty” of Myers’s writing, which was “infused with empathy and hope.”
Choosing to share a piece of writing from an earlier point in his career, Reynolds recited a letter in verse that he had written at a particularly challenging moment: he had not yet become a successful author and had just moved back in with his mother. The letter asserts that creativity is a proud and audacious act and is a call to action for taking a creative leap, regardless of the possibility that one’s work will go unnoticed.
In the spirit of bravely sharing early, unpublished works, writer, actor, and musician Eisa Davis sat down at the piano and began to sing, stopping halfway through the song to reveal that it was a song that she wrote when she was 13, and which she never actually finished. She explained that, in reading Myers’s work and thinking about his influence, “I feel like I can do anything.” She went on to read several picture book stories that she wrote when she was a child (with such titles as “How the Cat Got His Fur”) and a piece of writing inspired by jazz from her teenage years.
Myers next reflected about how his father grew up in Harlem as a poor, voracious reader and writer for whom education seemed out of reach. “The world was not ready for him,” he explained. His father’s writing, Myers believes, was always in part an effort to “build a place in the world for that 16-year-old boy” who didn’t know where he could turn or where he belonged. And one of the lessons his father taught him was that “part of building that world is through service” to others.
The next speaker, Neela Vaswani, addressed this very issue. She frequently works with ESL students learning to read and write at the New York Public Library. She shared that she used Walter and Christopher’s We Are America (HarperCollins) during one class, while she was also working on her book Same Sun Here (Candlewick), which she co-wrote with Silas House, at that time: “Part of the spirit of We Are America entered my character,” she explained. She next read a passage from Same Sun Here, adjusting her accent to better represent her character, Neela, who has moved from India to New York City with her family and feels uprooted.
Emily Raboteau spoke briefly about the essay that Myers wrote last year for the New York Times called “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”. Recalling how Christopher Myers’s email to the event’s participants had urged them not to memorialize Walter but to “be the change” that Myers wanted to see in the world, she read from a picture book that she wrote for the occasion, inspired by Myers and by her son, Geronimo.
Before singing, performer Jomama Jones paid tribute to Myers and the inclusion of black stories in our country’s literature, by reflecting on a first visit to a library in the northern states as a child. There, Jones encountered “those most marvelous creatures in existence: black librarians,” who showed her what they called “your National Anthem” – books from the Harlem Renaissance and songs about black experiences. Something that Jones has learned and that Myers knew, is that “when one encounters the prevailing narratives, one must get to work.”
Stating, “What is there not to say about Walter Myers?,” Jacqueline Woodson shared that, as a developing writer, “Walter helped me believe that what I was doing was so necessary in the world.” She also reflected on seeing first-hand how kids are profoundly impacted by Myers’s writing. While visiting a school to meet with children deemed “at risk,” she heard one student say about Myers’s work, “Damn, his book Monster saved me.” Hearing this made her think about that term “at risk.” Myers spoke for those who are often not spoken for: “At risk,” she said. “We are all at risk if we don’t hear their stories.”
Next, she read an original piece of writing in tribute to Myers, which repeats the refrain, “You do not die,” and speaks to the depth of his impact on “the world you changed forever.” She next read a passage from her National Book Award-winning Brown Girl Dreaming (Penguin/Paulsen), in which the narrator reflects on the death of her grandfather.
A personal friend of Christopher Myers, who also knew his father, Wah-Ming Chang spoke about how, whenever she and Christopher get together over tea, they always discuss “growing up in New York City, our parents, and our work.” She had always admired the way that Christopher was able to collaborate openly and meaningfully with his father – something that she has worked to achieve with her own father, but in different ways, because he has an eighth-grade education. She read a passage from a work that takes place in New York City, about hauntings, poetry, and ancestral history.
After a musical and spoken-word performance from Helga Davis, Brian Selznick honored Myers by speaking about the mentorship that occurs organically when young readers and budding writers are influenced by authors. Growing up, one of Selznick’s favorite authors was Ray Bradbury. As a child, Selznick couldn’t have imagined that one day he would receive a fan letter from Bradbury, with the words: “I love Hugo Cabret.”
After Selznick wrote back, Bradbury invited him to visit. During the time he spent with Bradbury, the late author showed Selznick some of his work in progress and the title of one story particularly caught his eye: “Remembrance, Ohio.” He read a passage from that story, a surreal work about two individuals who are seeking the familiar landscape of their childhood home, but find that it has been strangely and irrevocably altered. Selznick commented how he loves the story’s quality of mystery and the notion of constructed and reconstructed landscapes in literature – places that we can visit again and again.
“Myers left us a city” in his work, Selznick said, “in which we can run and seek refuge.” He finished by thanking Myers “for the safe places and for pointing out where danger lies... for reminding us every day that there is work to be done.”