Author and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Walter Dean Myers died on July 2 following a short illness. He was 76.
The award-winning author of more than 100 works for children and young adults—including Monster (HarperCollins, 1999), the first novel to win the Printz Award, as well as Fallen Angels (Scholastic, 1988), Scorpions (HarperCollins, 1988), and Sunrise Over Fallujah (Scholastic, 2008)—Myers was passionately outspoken about the importance of reading and the need for greater diversity in literature.
Regard for Myers—and his influence—ran wide and deep. “I am so deeply hollowed by Walter’s passing,” emailed award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson. “He was a groundbreaker, an activist, a guide, and most of all, a friend… I don’t think a whole lot of us would be publishing if Walter hadn’t broken such amazing ground, open such tightly sealed doors. This world is different because of his voice in it. I’ve spent the past hours wishing for one more conversation with him.”
Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of The Horn Book (SLJ’s sister publication), who knew Myers for 30 years, said, “It was always great to see Walter at ALA and other meetings, and not just because being the same height meant we could always hear each other over the din. He seemed interested in everything, listening as enthusiastically as he talked. Walter was a great reader and writer, and a terrific colleague.”
Myers received a bevy of awards and honors for his work, including the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the Young Adult Library Services Association, sponsored by SLJ, which honors a lifetime of achievement, and the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. He has written six Coretta Scott King Award/Honor books, two Newbery Honor books, and three National Book Award finalists. In 2010, he was nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and in 2012, he was appointed the Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a two-year position designed to raise awareness of the importance of literacy, whose predecessors were notable authors like Katherine Paterson and Jon Scieszka.
Most notably, Myers penned the first book to win the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, with Monster.
Judy Nelson, of the Pierce County, highlighted the significance of the book, about a 16-year-old boy on trial for murder. “For the inaugural Printz Award, the committee felt it was critical that our winning selection reflect the highest quality of writing for teens–establishing a very high standard for all future winners,” she said. “Imagine our delight when Walter Dean Myers’s novel Monster was published that year. His respect for his readers led him to write this compelling, well-crafted story using a screenplay and diary format and incorporating video stills, drawings and even mug shots throughout.”
Similarly, Pat Scales, chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, who also served on the committee, called the book “a tour de force in young adult literature. The genius in the work is that teens connect the dots and begin to ponder: How am I perceived? What a perfect choice for the first Printz Award!”
“Reading is not an option” was his platform as YA literature ambassador, and he once told School Library Journal, “As a young man, I saw families prosper without reading, because there were always sufficient opportunities for willing workers who could follow simple instructions. This is no longer the case. Children who don’t read are, in the main, destined for lesser lives. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to change this.”
Robin Adelson, the executive director of the Children’s Book Council—one of the parties that selects the YA literature ambassador—said:
“Walter was one of those people who was so mindful of his good fortune and so grateful for the life he led and he encouraged others to recognize the greatness in their lives and talents. We all fell a little smarter and a little greater after a visit with him. As National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, he traveled the country and… shared the most personal stories with young readers everywhere. Walter unequivocally believed that reading saved his life, and he carried that message to those who needed to hear it most. He will be missed terribly. His legacy will surely outlive us all.”
Myers was born in 1937 in Martinsburg, West Virginia. When he was two years old, his mother died and he was raised by Florence Dean, the first wife of his father, George Myers, and her husband, Herbert, in New York City’s Harlem. The author and his family underwent much hardship after his uncle’s murder when he was 13—his surrogate father became deeply depressed, and his surrogate mother began drinking again—and Myers described books as his salvation. He wrote from a young age and regularly visited the George Bruce Branch of the New York Public Library, immersing himself in books such as Robin Hood and The Red Badge of Courage. At SLJ’s 2012 Day of Dialog, Myers delivered the keynote speech, emphasizing how reading was his salvation—“I came out of that. I had a different worldview than just my misery.”
Though Myers stopped reading and writing at age 17, dropping out of high school and joining the army, his love of the written word still hadn’t been extinguished. After leaving the army, he began to write again. Discovering the work of author James Baldwin—whom he met briefly later—was a life-changing experience for Myers, because it was one of his first encounters with literature focusing on African-Americans and one of the first times seeing himself in a story. Baldwin inspired him to draw upon his own life experiences and worldview when writing.
His winning contest entry for the Council on Interracial Books for Children eventually became his first book, Where Does the Day Go? (Parents Magazine Pr., 1969), a picture book about a young African-American boy whose father uses the difference between night and day to describe the differences between people. Myers would go on to collaborate on many picture books with his son, Christopher, such as Shadow of the Red Moon (Scholastic, 1997), Harlem: A Poem, and Jazz (Scholastic, 1997).
“Myers was a compassionate, wonderful, and brilliant man,” said his literary agent, Miriam Altshuler. “He wrote about children who needed a voice and their stories told.”
With his Printz winner, Monster (illustrated by Christopher), Myers strove to humanize poor, inner-city children whom he felt went unrepresented in most works. When doing research for the book, Myers spoke to a lawyer doing pro bono work, who told him that the hardest part of his job was making juries see his clients as real people. For Myers, this was the ultimate goal of his writing and, for many, what made his books so accessible.
“Walter wrote such outstanding books that he could easily have rested on his laurels, but he didn’t,” said K.T. Horning director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Madison, Wisconsin. “He never stopped giving, whether as an outspoken activist for diversity in books for children and teens, or as an advocate for powerless children and teens, or as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. He was a giant, and many of today’s authors are here because they were able to stand on his shoulders.”