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Myers, Walter Dean
August 12, 1937 -
Author

 

1993 Ludington Award Winner

SOURCE CITATION
"Walter Dean Myers." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., 8 vols. Gale Group, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007.
Photograph provided by Scholastic Inc.

BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY
Called "one of today's most important authors of young adult literature" by Rudine Sims Bishop in Presenting Walter Dean Myers and "a giant among children's and young adult authors" by Frances Bradburn of Wilson Library Bulletin, Walter Dean Myers is regarded as one of the best contemporary American writers for children and young adults. An author of African American descent, he is considered responsible for helping redefine the image of blacks in juvenile literature. A group of African American writers emerged in the 1960s and 1970s who are credited with providing more realistic storylines and more well-rounded portrayals of black characters than those by previous authors. As a member of this group, which includes such writers as Alice Childress, Lucille Clifton, Eloise Greenfield, Virginia Hamilton, and Sharon Bell Mathis, Myers brings both humor and poignancy to his books and is known for creating works with special appeal to boys; in addition, he is considered the only prominent male writer of the group to have consistently published books of quality. A versatile and prolific author, Myers has written realistic and historical fiction, mysteries, adventure stories, fantasies, nonfiction, poetry, and picture books for a diverse audience of young people. Although he is praised for his contributions to several genres, Myers is perhaps best known as the writer of books for readers in junior high and high school that range from farcical, lighthearted stories for younger teens to powerful, moving novels for older adolescents. Myers is credited with stressing the more positive aspects of black urban life in his works. Often setting his books in his boyhood home of Harlem, Myers is acknowledged for depicting the strength and dignity of his characters without downplaying the harsh realities of their lives.

"Although he features both young men and women as protagonists, Myers is noted for his focus on young African American males. His themes often include the relationship between fathers and sons as well as the search for identity and self-worth in an environment of poverty, drugs, gangs, and racism. Although his characters confront difficult issues, Myers stresses survival, pride, and hope in his works, which are filled with love and laughter and a strong sense of possibility for the future of their protagonists. Lauded for his understanding of the young, Myers is acclaimed as the creator of believable, sympathetic adolescent characters; he is also praised for creating realistic dialogue, some of which draws on rap music and other African American idioms. Calling him "a unique voice," Bishop said that Myers has become "an important writer because he creates books that appeal to young adults from many cultural groups. They appeal because Myers knows and cares about the things that concern his readers and because he creates characters that readers are happy to spend time with." R. D. Lane of African American Review noted that the author "celebrates children by weaving narratives of the black juvenile experience in ways that reverse the effects of mediated messages of the black experience in public culture. . . . Myers's stratagem is revolutionary: the intrinsic value to black youth of his lessons stands priceless, timeless, and class-transcendent." In her entry in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Carmen Subryan concluded, "Myers's books demonstrate that writers can not only challenge the minds of black youths but also emphasize the black experience in a nondidactic way that benefits all readers."

"Born in Martinsburg, West Virginia, Myers was originally named Walter Milton Myers. At age two, he lost his mother, Mary Green Myers, during the birth of his younger sister Imogene. Since his father George Ambrose Myers was struggling economically, Walter and two of his sisters were informally adopted by two friends of his parents, Florence and Herbert Dean; later, Myers would write about surrogate parenting in several of his stories, including Won't Know till I Get There and Me, Mop, and the Moondance Kid. The Deans moved their family to Harlem when Myers was about three. He once commented, "I loved Harlem. I lived in an exciting corner of the renowned Black capital and in an exciting era. The people I met there, the things I did, have left a permanent impression on me." When he was four, Myers was taught to read by his foster mother; his foster father sat the boy on his knee and told him what Myers called "endless stories." The author wrote in Children's Books and Their Creators, "Somewhere along the line I discovered that books could be part of a child's world, and by the time I was nine I found myself spending long hours reading in my room. The books began to shape new bouts of imagination. Now I was one of 'The Three Musketeers' (always the one in the middle), or participating in the adventures of Jo's boys. John R. Tunis brought me back to sports, and I remember throwing a pink ball against the wall for hours as I struggled through baseball games that existed only in the rich arena of invention."

"When he wasn't reading, Myers enjoyed playing sports, especially stickball, baseball, and basketball; the latter provides the background for three of the author's most popular young adult novels, Hoops, The Outside Shot, and Slam! At school, Myers enjoyed classwork but found that a speech impediment caused him some difficulty. His fellow classmates would laugh at him and, as a result, he would fight back; consequently, he was often suspended from school. Myers once said that when he was in fifth grade, "a marvelous thing happened." Made to sit at the back of the class for fighting, Myers was reading a comic book during a math lesson when the teacher, Mrs. Conway, caught him. Mrs. Conway, who was known for her meanness, surprised Walter by saying that if he was going to read he might as well read something decent. She brought him a selection of children's books; Myers remembered Asbjornsen and Moe's East of the Sun and West of the Moon, a collection of Norwegian folktales, as a turning point in his appreciation of literature. Mrs. Conway also required her students to read aloud in class. In order to avoid some of the words that he had trouble speaking, she suggested that Walter write something for himself to read. The poems that he wrote for class--which deliberately skirted problematic consonants--were Myers's first literary attempts.

"After completing an accelerated junior high school program that consolidated the seventh and eighth grades into one year, Myers attended the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, a school for boys that stressed academic achievement. Although he struggled somewhat with the school's focus on science, Myers met another influential teacher, Bonnie Liebow, who interviewed each of her students and made up individualized reading lists for them; Myers's list included works by such European authors as Emile Zola and Thomas Mann. Liebow also told Myers that he was a gifted writer, and he began thinking of writing as a career. He wrote every day, sometimes skipping school to sit in a tree in Central Park to read or work on his writing. However, at age sixteen Myers began to feel frustrated. Although he won a prize for an essay contest and was awarded a set of encyclopedias for one of his poems, Myers realized that writing "had no practical value for a Black child." He recalled: "These minor victories did not bolster my ego. Instead, they convinced me that even though I was bright, even though I might have some talent,

"I was still defined by factors other than my ability." In addition, Myers was depressed by the fact that he would not be able to attend college due to his family's financial status. Consequently, he noted, he began "writing poems about death, despair, and doom" and began "having doubts about everything in my life." When not writing or working odd jobs, Myers hung out in the streets: "I was steeped in the mystique of the semi-hoodlum," he recalled. Myers acquired a stiletto and acted as a drug courier; he also became a target for one of the local gangs after intervening in a fight between three gang members and a new boy in the neighborhood. Finally, influenced by the war poems of English poet Rupert Brooke, Myers joined the army at seventeen in order to, as he once wrote, "hie myself off to some far-off battlefield and get killed. There, where I fell, would be a little piece of Harlem."

"Myers's army experience was less than the glorious adventure promised by the poetry he had read; he went to radio-repair school and spent most of his time playing basketball. "I also learned several efficient ways of killing human beings," he once wrote. In Presenting Walter Dean Myers, the author told Bishop, "I learned something about dying. I learned a lot about facilitating the process, of making it abstract." Myers developed a strong antiwar attitude that would later become part of his young adult novel Fallen Angels, the story of a young black soldier in Vietnam. After three years in the army, Myers returned to his parents, who had moved to Morristown, New Jersey. After a brief period, he moved back to Harlem, where he took an apartment and began to work at becoming a professional writer. Calling this his "starving artist period," Myers wrote poetry and read books about the Bohemian life by such authors as George Orwell and André Gide; he also lived on two dollars a week from unemployment compensation and lost fifty pounds. Finally, when a friend suggested that he take the Civil Service exam, Myers went to work for the post office, a job that lasted only a few months. He also married Joyce, a woman he called "wonderful, warm, beautiful, religious, caring." Even after becoming a father--two of his three children, Karen and Michael, are from his first marriage--Myers continued to try to live a romantic lifestyle. While working odd jobs in a factory and an office, he played bongos with a group of jazz musicians, some of whom were into heroin and cocaine, and wrote jazz-based poetry, some of which was published in Canada. He also began to be published in African American magazines such as the Negro Digest and the Liberator as well as in men's magazines such as Argosy and Cavalier. "I also," Myers recalled, "drank too much and ran around too much." Eventually, his marriage collapsed.

"In 1961, Myers enrolled in a writing class with the author Lajos Egri, who told him that he had a special talent. A few years later, Myers attended City College of the City University of New York as a night student, but dropped out. He then enrolled at a writer's workshop at Columbia University. The workshop was led by John Oliver Killens, a successful African American novelist who recommended Myers for a new editorial position at the publishing house Bobbs-Merrill. Myers got the job and became an acquisitions editor. In 1968, he entered a contest for African American writers sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. The manuscript that Myers submitted was selected as the first-prize winner in the picture book category; in 1969, it was published by Parents' Magazine Press as Where Does the Day Go? The book features Steven, a small black boy whose father takes him and a group of children of various races for an evening walk in the park. When Steven wonders where the day goes, his friends each provide imaginative opinions of their own. Finally, Steven's daddy explains that the day and night are different, just like people, and that the times of day are caused by the rotation of the Earth. "Integration, involvement, and togetherness are all deftly handled," noted Mary Eble of School Library Journal, while Zena Sutherland, Dianne L. Monson, and May Hill Arbuthnot claimed in Children and Books that the story has "other strong values in addition to its exploration of the mystery of night and day." The critics noted that Where Does the Day Go? "explains natural phenomena accurately, and it presents an exemplary father."

"After the publication of his first book, Myers changed his name from Walter Milton Myers to, as he once wrote, "one that would honor my foster parents, Walter Dean Myers." He also remarried, and he and his wife Constance had a son, Christopher, an artist who has illustrated several of his father's works. In 1972, Myers published The Dragon Takes a Wife, a picture book that is often considered his most controversial book. The story features Harry, a lonely dragon who cannot fight, and Mabel May, the African American fairy who helps him. In order to acquire a wife, Harry must defeat a knight in battle. When Mabel May turns into a dragon to show Harry how to fight, Harry falls in love with her, defeats the knight, and wins her hand (not to mention a good job at the post office). Myers received mixed reviews for The Dragon Takes a Wife. A critic in Kirkus Reviews called it "pointless intercultural hocus-pocus," while Nancy Griffin of the New York Times Book Review praised it as "the funniest, most-up-to-the-minute fairy tale of 1972." Some readers were angered by the fact that Mabel May was black and spoke in hip lingo; they were also concerned that this character appeared in a fairy tale for young children. The Dragon Takes a Wife was banned by some libraries; Myers also received hate mail from disgruntled adult readers of the book.

"In 1975, Myers published his first novel for young adults, Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff. Set in a Harlem neighborhood much like the one in which its author grew up, the story describes a group of young teens who take a positive approach to living in a difficult environment. The story is narrated by eighteen-year-old Stuff, who recalls the year that he was thirteen and formed a sort of anti-gang, the Good People, with his best friends Fast Sam and Cool Clyde plus five other boys and girls from the neighborhood. The Good People have several hilarious adventures, including one where Sam and Clyde--who is dressed as a girl--win a dance contest. However, they also deal with such problems as mistaken arrest, the deaths of one of their fathers, and a friend who has turned to drugs. The children survive, both through their inner strength and the fellowship of their friends, who are dependable and respectful of one another. Writing in English Journal, Alleen Pace Nilsen called Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff "a rich, warm story about black kids in which Myers makes the reader feel so close to the characters that ethnic group identification is secondary." Paul Heins of Horn Book noted that "the humorous and ironic elements of the plot give the book the flavor of a Harlem Tom Sawyer or Penrod. " Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff continues to be one of Myers's most popular works, especially among middle graders and junior high school students. Writing in Something About the Author Autobiography Series, the author remarked, "I was writing humor in Fast Sam . . . something that comes to me fairly easily. I was also writing about the positive side of my Harlem experience, which most of it was."

"In 1977, after being fired from his job as a senior editor for Bobbs-Merrill due to a dispute with a company vice president, Myers became a full-time writer. It Ain't All for Nothin', a young adult novel published the next year, is considered the first of the author's more serious, thought-provoking works. The novel features twelve-year-old Tippy, a motherless Harlem boy who has been living with his loving, principled grandmother since he was a baby. When she goes into a nursing home, Tippy moves in with his father Lonnie, an ex-con who makes his living by stealing and who beats his son viciously. Lonely and afraid, Tippy begins drinking whiskey. When Lonnie and his pals rob a store, he coerces Tippy into participating. Bubba, a member of the group, is shot; in order to save Bubba and save himself, Tippy calls the police and turns in his father. At the end of the novel, Tippy goes to live with Mr. Roland, a kind man who has befriended him. It Ain't All for Nothin' was praised by Steven Matthews in School Library Journal as "a first-rate read, in the class of Alice Childress's A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich" and by a critic in Kirkus Reviews as "like Tippy--a winner." Although questioning "how many children are really going to 'drop a dime' on their father?," Ashley Jane Pennington concluded in her review in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin that It Ain't All for Nothin' "is a devastating book which needed to be written." In 1984, Myers published Motown and Didi: A Love Story, a highly praised spin-off novel from It Ain't All for Nothin' that features two of the latter's peripheral characters. A romance between two Harlem teens, Motown and Didi includes a strong antidrug message as well as the theme that love can conquer all.

"In 1988, Myers published Scorpions and Fallen Angels, two novels for young people that are considered among his best. In Scorpions, twelve-year-old Jamal lives in Harlem with his mother and younger sister. He is approached to take the place of his older brother Randy, who is in jail for killing a man, as the leader of his gang, the Scorpions. At first, Jamal refuses; however, he is fascinated with the gun that Randy's friend Mack gives him and is searching for a way to help his family raise the money for Randy's appeal. Jamal and his best friend Tito, a sensitive Puerto Rican boy, join the Scorpions, who are dealing cocaine. During a confrontation, Jamal is defended by Tito, who uses the gun that Mack had given Jamal to kill to protect his friend. Marcus Crouch of the Junior Bookshelf wrote that Myers "writes with great power, capturing the cadences of black New York, and keeps a firm hold on his narrative and his emotions. He is a fine story-teller as well as a social critic and, I suspect, a moralist." Writing in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Roger Sutton noted that Myers's "compassion for Tito and Jamal is deep; perhaps the book's seminal achievement is the way it makes us realize how young, in Harlem and elsewhere, twelve years old really is."

"Fallen Angels describes the horrors of the Vietnam War from the perspective of Richie Perry, a seventeen-year-old African American boy who has joined the Army as a way to make life easier for his mother and younger brother in Harlem. During the course of a year, Richie experiences fear and terror as he fights in the war; he burns the bodies of American soldiers because they cannot be carried and--with a rifle at his head--shoots a North Vietnamese soldier in the face; finally, after being wounded twice, he is sent home. Underscoring the novel, which includes rough language and gallows humor, is a strong antiwar message; Myers also addresses such issues as racial discrimination within the service and the conditions faced by the Vietnamese people. Calling Myers "a writer of skill, maturity, and judgment," Ethel L. Heins of Horn Book maintained: "With its intensity and vividness in depicting a young soldier amid the chaos and the carnage of war, the novel recalls Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. " W. Keith McCoy, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, commented, "Everything about this book rings true," while Mary Veeder of Chicago Tribune Books noted that Fallen Angels "may be the best novel for young adults I've read this year." Writing in School Librarian, a British periodical, Alison Hurst claimed, "The dialogue is so convincing that American accents rang around my head as I read." Myers wrote Fallen Angels as a tribute to his brother Sonny, who was killed on his first day as a soldier in Vietnam; he also based much of the book on his own experience in the Army. In discussing both Fallen Angels and Scorpions with Kimberly Olson Fakih in Publishers Weekly, Myers called these books "a departure" and "very serious, probing work." He concluded: "Not that the others didn't address serious issues, too, but the new ones were more difficult to write." In 1993, Myers published A Place Called Heartbreak: A Story of Vietnam, a well-received biography of Colonel Fred V. Cherry, an Air Force pilot and African American who was held as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese for nearly eight years.

"In addition to his fiction, Myers has written several highly praised informational books for children and young people. In these works, the author characteristically outlines the fight for freedom by people of color; he has also written biographies of such figures as Toussaint L'Ouverture, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. Now Is Your Time! The African-American Struggle for Freedom is one of Myers's most well regarded works of nonfiction. In this book, the author recounts the history of African Americans through both overviews and profiles of individuals. "What happens," wrote a critic in Kirkus Reviews, "when a gifted novelist chooses to write the story of his people? In this case, the result is engrossing history with a strong unifying theme, the narrative enriched with accounts of outstanding lives." Michael Dirda of Washington Post Book World added that Myers "writes with the vividness of a novelist, the balance of a historian, and the passion of an advocate. He tells a familiar story and shocks us with it all over again." Writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, Kellie Flynn noted that this history "is alive and vital--with breathing biographical sketches and historic interpretations like rabbit punches." With Amistad: A Long Road to Freedom, a book published in 1998, Myers tells the dramatic story of the captive Africans who mutinied against their captors on the slave ship Amistad in the late 1830s. The book recounts the hellish journey on the ship and the forced landing in Connecticut as well as the landmark trial and the struggle of the West Africans to return home. Writing in Booklist, Hazel Rochman stated, "The narrative is exciting, not only the account of the uprising but also the tension of the court arguments about whether the captives were property and what their rights were in a country that banned the slave trade but allowed slavery." Gerry Larson of School Library Journal added, "With characteristic scholarship, clarity, insight, and compassion, Myers presents readers with the facts and the moral and historical significance of the Amistad episode."

"A longtime collector of historical photographs and documents depicting the lives and culture of African Americans, Myers has used his art to illustrate several of his informational books. The photos and letters from the author's collection have also inspired several of his works, including volumes of original poetry on black children and mothers and the biography At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England. Published in 1999, this work reconstructs the life of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a child of royal African descent who became a goddaughter of Queen Victoria as well as a British celebrity. Saved from a sacrificial rite in Dahomey by English sea captain Frederick E. Forbes, orphaned Sarah (named after her rescuer and his ship) was brought to England as a gift for Queen Victoria from the Dahomian king who slaughtered her family. Victoria provided the means for Sarah--nicknamed Sally--to be educated as a young woman of privilege in a missionary school in Sierra Leone. Sally, who often returned to England to visit her benefactor, grew up to marry a West African businessman--a marriage arranged by Buckingham Palace; she named her first-born child Victoria. Returning with her husband to Africa, Sally taught in missionary schools until she died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-six. Working from a packet of letters he discovered in a London bookstore, Myers tells Sally's story, which he embellishes with quotes from Queen Victoria's diary, newspapers, and other memoirs of the time. A critic in Kirkus Reviews commented, "This vividly researched biography will enthrall readers, and ranks among Myers's best writing." Calling At Her Majesty's Request a "fascinating biography" and a "moving and very humane portrait of a princess," a reviewer in Publishers Weekly concluded that Myers "portrays a young woman who never truly belongs."

"In his memoir Bad Boy, Myers writes about his own life and his period of being a juvenile delinquent. During this time, despite dabbling in crime, he read and wrote constantly; in the book, he notes, "Those values that I was accepting in school--being a good reader, being a person willing to explore the great ideas--were actually serving to separate me from other kids my age." He also writes about how, despite his intellectual interests and his writing talent, he saw that there was no constructive place for an African American young man. A Booklist reviewer praised Bad Boy, noting that Myers offers "no pat solutions" to the difficulties he faced. In School Library Journal, Miranda Doyle noted, "The author's growing awareness of racism and of his own identity as a black man make up one of the most interesting threads" in the book.

"Myers once stated that he feels the need to show African American young people "the possibilities that exist for them that were never revealed to me as a youngster; possibilities that did not even exist for me then." He continued: "As a Black writer I want to talk about my people. . . . I want to tell Black children about their humanity and about their history and how to grease their legs so the ash won't show and how to braid their hair so it's easy to comb on frosty winter mornings. The books come. They pour from me at a great rate. . . . There is always one more story to tell, one more person whose life needs to be held up to the sun." He added, "(T)here are times when I see someone reading one of my books, or when I get a letter from some person who has read a story or book of mine, and it makes me feel so good it hurts." The author recalled when he was sitting in his parents' Harlem apartment at about thirteen or fourteen reading the New York Times Book Review. He wrote, "I read the reviews and had an idea that this writing, this talking about books and reading books was as much the stuff of life as anything. I think I was right." In an interview in Teaching and Learning Literature, Myers said, "What I do with whatever art I have is to try to communicate the human experience." He continued that he wants to communicate this experience to "my sons, my son's sons, daughters, the next generation, and that is what life is about. We are the ones that have the gift of story, the gift of passing it on." Writing in Children's Books and Their Creators, Myers concluded, "What I do with my books is to create windows to my world that all may peer into. I share the images, the feelings and thoughts, and, I hope, the delight."

PERSONAL INFORMATION
Given name Walter Milton Myers; born August 12, 1937, in Martinsburg, WV; son of George Ambrose and Mary (Green) Myers; raised from age three by Herbert Julius (a shipping clerk) and Florence (a factory worker) Dean; married Joyce (marriage dissolved); married second wife, Constance Brendel, June 19, 1973; children: (first marriage) Karen, Michael Dean; (second marriage) Christopher. Education: Attended City College of the City University of New York; Empire State College, B.A., 1984. Memberships: PEN, Harlem Writers Guild. Addresses: Home--2543 Kennedy Blvd., Jersey City, NJ 07304.

CAREER
New York State Department of Labor, New York, NY, employment supervisor, 1966-70; Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc. (publisher), New York, NY, senior trade books editor, 1970-77; full-time writer, 1977--. Teacher of creative writing and black history on a part-time basis in New York, NY, 1974-75; worked variously as a post-office clerk, inter-office messenger, and an interviewer at a factory. Military service: U.S. Army, 1954-57.


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