Walter Dean Myers
We asked writers, editors, and educators to remember Walter Dean Myers, the author of more than 100 books, whose profound contributions to children’s literature go well beyond the printed word. In his New York Times essay “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”, Mr. Myers argued that “books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?”
The following memories only scratch the surface of the mountainous legacy Walter Dean Myers has left behind. –The Editors
My lightning bolt Walter Dean Myers moment came when I first read his article in the New York Times Book Review, published in 1986: “I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry.” I was a young person aspiring to shape my own editorial list, and Walter’s article about the lack of diversity in children’s books affected me deeply and was instrumental in the identity I took on as an editor. (Sadly, Walter felt compelled to publish an article about the same theme in the New York Times almost thirty years later.) I used Walter’s article as a bible of sorts and would read it every so often. About twenty years after it was published, I gave the article, now yellow and crinkled from many reads, to his longtime editor, the brilliant and caring Phoebe Yeh, with the following inscription: “Walter has always been my hero.”
I first got to know Walter not as his editor, but as Ross Workman’s mom. Walter has long been my son Ross’s favorite author. When Ross was thirteen, he wrote Walter a fan letter, and, astoundingly, Walter wrote back to Ross and asked him to write a novel with him. Who else would do such a thing but generous, kind Walter Dean Myers, who mentored so many children and teens, and was always willing to take a young person under his wing? Walter and Ross worked on the book together for several years, with Phoebe’s guidance. Kick was published by HarperCollins when Ross was seventeen, in 2011, and he and Walter made various appearances to talk about it. I tagged along, as mom. I remember sitting in a restaurant in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, with Walter, Ross, and Phoebe after a school appearance, and listening to Walter talk about a wide range of subjects with dazzling knowledge and intellect. When Walter spoke, his listeners would want him to go on and on. He knew about history and literature and music and theatre and sports. He knew about how children and teens should be treated by society. He knew about life.
When Phoebe left HarperCollins for Random House last year, I had the great honor of being asked to be Walter’s editor. We met for lunch with his longtime agent, Miriam Altshuler, and HarperCollins Children’s Editor-in-Chief Kate Jackson, and again, I just wanted to listen to him talk. He was so charismatic and brilliant that he defined the phrase “lights up the room.” We worked on several wonderful books over the past year, which will be published in 2015 and 2016. As an author, Walter was the consummate professional—a gentleman and a scholar. There were days when I still couldn’t believe that I was working with the Walter Dean Myers. Never mind actors and sports stars: modest, ever-humble, kind Walter was my idea of a celebrity. He was a great man who revolutionized the world in his own way. I miss him, and I’m staggered by this loss.
-Rosemary Brosnan, editor
The first time I met Walter Dean Myers, I was fourteen years old, and we had already written a rough draft of a book together. His books had such an impact on me that when I was thirteen, I felt compelled to e-mail him to let him know how I felt. His writing spoke directly to my fears, hopes, and emotions. Even though I hadn’t necessarily experienced the same situations that were in his books, the thinking processes of his characters were similar to my own. When Walter emailed me back (within minutes), he suggested we write a book together. Such was Walter’s incredible generosity.
When I walked in to meet Walter in the HarperCollins offices with our editor Phoebe Yeh, I was nervous and self-conscious. What would he think of me? When I first walked into Phoebe’s office, he shook my hand, smiled, and said, “’Sup, man.” I immediately felt at ease. It shocked me how such a brilliant and intelligent man could be so down to earth. Walter never put on “airs” and always had the time and patience for me. His intellectual but down-to-earth demeanor was part of what attracted so many readers to his books. He connected with them on a level few other authors could.
While we worked on our book, Walter was not one to give too much praise, so when he did offer praise, it was meaningful. When my writing was not up to my ability, Walter let me know this and was always there to offer advice and mentorship.
Whenever we met, Walter would talk eagerly about the latest books he was writing. And when he talked, everyone around him listened. He knew something about everything.
Even now it is ironic that I can’t find the right words to do justice about the man who taught me so much about finding and using words. I will always miss Walter as a writer, but I will miss even more the Walter I knew as a person.
-Ross Workman is the coauthor of the novel Kick, written with Walter Dean Myers. He is currently a student at Cornell University.
I first discovered Walter Dean Myers when I was looking for books about my students’ lives. They weren’t connecting with the books I knew. How could they? Their lives had much more serious things to worry about than dances, boys, and summer camp woes. They lived in homeless shelters. Their parents were in jail and witnessed shootings of family members. And they were only six!
But, Walter knew my children. He helped me know my children. I couldn’t believe that in all my English classes and even African American Studies courses that Walter Dean Myers was never mentioned. But Walter knew why…and said it best in the New York Times piece this past year.
One year, when I attended the SCBWI-LA conference, Walter was a keynote speaker.
And while I was walking down the street on the way to lunch and gushing about his speech, I hadn’t realized he was right behind me! Slightly embarrassed, we all walked to lunch together.
This was when I dared to ask my haunting question: “Do you think someone like me (Jewish) could write African American books?” I was afraid of the answer, but I had to know. Or maybe I just craved The King’s blessing.
Walter asked why I wanted to. I told him. He responded, “Writing from the inside is never wrong.” At the time, I wasn’t sure what he meant, I thought it meant like “write what ya know.” Really? This was all you got? After much thought, I understood. Don’t write outside of your culture because you think it would be “cool.” Write because you believe a voice needs to be heard. Write because it scrapes your soul and you will not rest until the story is told.
Walter taught me to write from the inside out.
-Lisa Rose, writer
A few years back, shortly after I signed my first deal with Simon & Schuster, and had written When I Was the Greatest, Walter Dean Myers came into the store I was managing at the time. I think I was helping a woman with a pair of shoes when he stepped in with his son, my brother, Chris.
“Pops said he wanted to meet you,” Chris said.
I stood straight, and looked Walter in the eye, his presence filling every corner of the room. I reached for his hand and he gave me a very “informal” handshake, Harlem all over his fingers.
“I’ve read your work,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Do you write every day?”
“What’s your schedule?”
“Some in the morning, some at night.”
He went on with a few more questions, prodding at my work ethic, my discipline, my passion. And once he was done with the questions, he said, compassionately but firmly, “Son, you will not fail.”
Those words will ring in me for the rest of my life. The way that Baldwin made it okay for Walter to write our lives, Walter gave me the confidence to do the same. He made me feel like my voice was necessary, and that there was a place for me in this legacy.
Walter Dean Myers, thank you so much and I promise to do my very, very best.
–Jason Reynolds, author, When I was the Greatest
Walter Dean Myers was the man who ushered me into the role of Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. I said to him, “I don’t know if I can do this.” And he said, “Of course you can.”
He sat next to me at the induction ceremony, and sitting beside him made me feel brave.
Today, the day after his death, I am thinking about his words, his stories. I am thinking about the gentle man he was. I am thinking that no one can ever discount the power of words, because the life of Walter Dean Myers embodied the power of words.
I am also thinking that I would give anything to sit next to him one more time.
–Kate DiCamillo, Newbery medal author, 2014 Ambassador for Young People’s Literature
When I first read The Blues of Flats Brown by Walter Dean Myers (Holiday House, 2000) I wasn’t sure what to make of it because it defied my expectations for what a contained and focused picture book should be. Since that time, it’s become one of my favorite books to read, teach, read to my daughter, and use as an inspirational challenge when I write.
I first came across it when doing some research for a class unit I was teaching on animal stories and fables. Yes, the main character of the book, Flats, is a dog, and yes, there might be a moral or even two, but there is a lot more going on in this book. A lot more… If one were to read the basic summary on the jacket: “To escape an abusive master, a junkyard dog named Flats runs away to make a name for himself from Mississippi to New York City playing blues on this guitar,” they might think how the hell could Myers build a story around this premise in a thirty-two page illustrated picture book? But it works without being confusing, contrived, or silly. It just does.
It could be argued the ambitious book exposes oppression, animal rights, and class issues, while teaching about music, jazz in particular, regional dialect and geography, culture, and friendship. I would agree. Yet it could also be argued that it’s just a really good and entertaining story that sucks the reader in without getting too caught up in any of its own eccentricities.
The Blues of Flats Brown, along with some of Myers’ other work, has strengthened my understanding that intriguing children’s fiction doesn’t need to be just about one thing or follow one theme, but instead can open up an entire quirky world for a reader to explore and leave with their own conclusions. It can be relatable, but it doesn’t need to be the exact world we live in. Just like with work for adults, it can and should defy expectations. Similar to the rumor referenced on the last page of the book about Flats and his aging best friend, Caleb, playing their favorite tune, “The Freaky Flea Blues” on the waterfront in Savannah: “Some people don’t believe that. I do”.
–Katy E. Whittingham, writer
I was first introduced to Mr. Walter Dean Myers by way of reading Monster for an African American Literature course in undergrad. He returned to me when I took up a master’s degree in school library media and signed up for the requisite young adult literature course. But I can still recall the moment we become best acquainted.
My 4th grade students and I kicked off National Poetry Month by reading Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, a middle grade novel written in verse from the perspective of a boy who is required to keep a poetry journal for school. Without sharing too much of this moving plot, Creech weaves a tale through free verse of a boy whose beloved dog has passed. The boy discovers a platform to explore and share his feelings through poetry, and one poem, Walter Dean Myers’ “Love That Boy”, reaches the boy in that special way that perhaps you yourself have experienced. For the boy in Love That Dog, he feels almost as if Myers has written the poem precisely for him at this exact time.
Poetry is magic like that.
Poetry has the power to transcend time and space and to connect with us no matter what the circumstance or brevity through which the poet communicates.
“Love That Boy” reached me. It spoke to the boys in my class who were hard to love. Those who demanded my unwavering attention and who challenged my ability to manage behaviors. The poem’s title became a mantra that I repeated to myself then and continue to speak today. And it’s not just for my boys. It’s for every kid that walks into my library.
I love those kids.
No matter what baggage they bring into school with them, I love those kids.
How they struggle or why they act out, I love those kids.
If they’ve grown too cool for me or if they roll their eyes at me, I love those kids.
When they lose a book or two or three and I know and they know there’s no way their parent is going to pay to replace it, I love those kids.
When they seem like life just keeps throwing them curveballs and they just can’t seem to get a break, I love those kids.
And every time I love those kids, I think of Mr. Walter Dean Myers and the way he taught us that we’re different, each of us, and that’s something to celebrate. No matter how hard it gets or how few people understand, each and all of us are loved. You don’t need to know by whom. You just have to know it.
–Matthew Winner is an elementary school teacher librarian in Elkridge, Md. He is a 2013 Library Journal Mover & Shaker and was named a White House Champion of Change. Matthew is the host of the popular children’s literature podcast Let’s Get Busy and the author of the Busy Librarian blog. Find Matthew online at @MatthewWinner or by visiting BusyLibrarian.com.
“Mr. Mena, stop giving us this boring crap to read,” she said as she hurled The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde across the room. “Don’t worry, I’ll send myself to the ISS [In School Suspension] room.”
And this was how a good portion of that first semester of teaching the high school reading program went. I would choose a book on the shelves left from my predecessor and we would read a page or two into it before the students would lose interest and act out in order to get sent out of the room. Jekyll and Hyde, The Gift of the Magi, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Flowers for Algernon (which, due to poor inter-school communication, they had all previously read in middle school). All with zero luck in attracting student interest.
Now, I feel I should explain that these weren’t the typical high-achieving, need-to-please students of my blue-collar town’s high school. No, this reading program was designed to teach them how to actually read, because at 15 and 16 years old, it was a skill they were still lacking. And while only in high school, these students were already in and out of rehab and juvenile detention centers, consistently absent from school—often for the mandatory court appearances of their parents, or their own—and were already on a first-name basis with their parole officers. Needless to say, my first year of teaching high school was a challenge.
And then Walter Dean Myer’s Monster found its way into my life. And for the first time in my incredibly short high school teaching career, I actually had students volunteering to read out loud. I, surprisingly, even had to develop a “first come, first served” system for calling dibs on the parts. “Well, Nick, if you want to read Steve’s part again, you better get here before Jayden tomorrow and call dibs.”
Now, I don’t want to sugarcoat and say everything that transpired over the next month while we read Monster was magical. Life rarely works that way. Still, because Myers’s novel had people of different ethnicities, different social classes, and different prejudices, I had 90% of my class thoroughly engaged. I had kids actually reacting to the text and telling me, yeah, my dad was in prison and this seems pretty accurate. Or, my favorite: “I hate that Pitro—Pechel—Petrocelli girl. Why is she so mean and dumb? Can’t she see Steve didn’t do it?”
Which, of course, then warranted my favorite response, “Why do you think she’s trying so hard to convict him? What does she have to gain from it? Would you do the same thing in her shoes?”
This then led to our first class discussion that was not completely one-sided. One that took us out of the text and into the students’ own lives and hypothetical choices. And for that, I owe everything to Walter Dean Myers.
–Gerardo Menais an ex-Spec Ops decorated Iraqi Freedom veteran turned high school English teacher with pieces published and forthcoming in The New York Times, Ploughshares, Poets & Writers, and Ninth Letter, among others.
My Fabulous Life with Walter Dean Myers
I like to pretend Walter Dean Myers and I are BFF. In fact, I refer to him as WDM. In the summer of 2011, Catherine (one of my co-graduate assistants) and I were insanely excited to be WDM’s “keepers,” as he called us, when he was a visiting writer at VCFA. I didn’t know much about WDM’s life, but I do know and love his work, and so do my students. Of all the moments we had, from leaving a maple bunny on his pillow before he arrived, to the drive back to the airport with Diane Stanley, the moment I will forever remember was during his Saturday morning talk. It’s not because his talk was insightful, which it was, or inspiring, which it also was, but because it was a much delayed foot-in-mouth moment that began on the way back from the airport the day before.
In the car that day, WDM, Catherine, and I had some meaningful conversation. Oh, it was the usual run-of-the-mill, getting-to-know-you type of conversation about politics, the state of education in the country, juvenile criminal justice, and the foster care system. Thinking I had some insightful info, I launched into a rambling about a documentary I had seen about adopting older children who are in foster care. “And you know,” I had said knowingly, “many foster kids who age out of the system wind up joining the Armed Forces.” As I continued, WDM nodded and smiled, a truly attentive listener.
So you can imagine my horror during WDM’s talk when he told us all about 1) being a foster child and 2) his time in the Armed Forces. His story wasn’t exactly like those of the children about which I had spoken earlier, but it became clear to me that anything I had told him was not news. It also became clear to me that not only is WDM an amazing writer and speaker, but he’s also a truly amazing, gracious person. What could have been an awkward moment in the confined space of the car wasn’t. He didn’t even mention it, and I sure wasn’t going to.
A Letter to Mr. Myers
Dear Mr. Myers,
Excuse me if I cry during this letter, because we never got to meet. I always thought we would one day, with little brown faces listening intently at our feet. We’d both read from our best-selling works and you’d say, “Well done.” And I’d try to hide my fangirl smile.
You’re gone now, Mr. Myers, and I’ll never get to hear you say those things.
As a Black writer, Mr. Myers, I thank you for all the work you’ve done. You’ve made it possible for someone like me to be accepted and seen. The Legacy, in your hands, has manifested into many books instead of just one dream.
-Necole Ryse, YA author
Walter Dean Myers will forever be an influential author in my life. As a reader, I first discovered Walter Dean Myers through his books: Scorpions and Monster. He had a way with language, and he had a way to make you feel as though you had become a part of the story. He was a pioneer in young adult literature, both in fiction and nonfiction. He made reading young adult stories feel authentic. In my English class, we watch a video every year on how to write a short story. My students watch Walter Dean Myers explain how he puts pictures up in his writing room and creates characters from those pictures. He explains in the video how he was born in a small town, and if he continued to live in that small town, his stories would have been much different. Instead, he grew up in Harlem, wrote about Harlem, told the stories of Harlem. Influenced by James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Myers’ stories have that same feeling of jazz and growing up during such uncertain and oppressive times as the Civil Rights Movement.
As a writer, Walter Dean Myers influenced me in this way: He said that when he sits down to write, he writes for the reluctant reader. He wanted to reach kids that weren’t the typical reader. He wanted to reach out and turn non-readers into readers. He wanted his passion to become their passion. It is clear that, in so many ways, Walter Dean Myers achieved the goal that he set out to accomplish. In bookstores, libraries, and classrooms all over the United States and the world, the books and the influence of Walter Dean Myers are read and enjoyed by both young and old. His stories are powerful, influential, and didactic without being preachy. He had a way with words that pulled you into the story, allowing you to spend some time with his characters and see their world. After reading a story by Walter Dean Myers, you would come away a better person.
When I was growing up, I didn’t like to read. It wasn’t until I came across young adult authors like Walter Dean Myers that all that began to change. So now, when I sit down to write, I don’t think about best sellers, or fame and fortune; my purpose for writing is to write the story for that reluctant reader. In writing my novel, The Final Play, I wanted to write a story that young adults could relate to and engage with. I wanted to show that literature is about more than just words on a page. It is an experience in which readers can submerge themselves and truly become a part of in so many ways. Walter Dean Myers accomplished his goal of getting reluctant readers to read. Even though we say goodbye to a legend, Walter Dean Myers will live on in our hearts, our minds, and his stories.
–Leonard Spacek, YA author
The first time I ever met Walter Dean Myers was at the SCBWI-LA conference in 2007. It was my first time going as an actual author–well, almost. My book Chess Rumble was coming out in a few months. I didn’t even have an ARC, just the proofs, which I had in an over-sized envelope in my bag. Walter was the first author I ever really wanted to meet, so I eagerly waited in the autograph line to see him. I had all kinds of things to say to him, important things, as if I was the first to ever tell him how his books changed my life, how they inspired me to write, etc. etc. When I got closer, I had second doubts. Was I any good, really? Did I dare call myself writer? Compared to Walter?
When I found myself in front of him, I was dumbstruck. I handed him a copy of his book Monster to sign. Feeling the pressure to say something, I blurted out the first thing to come to mind –”uh, I have a book coming out too.” Brilliant.
I handed him a postcard with the cover of my book on it. He thoughtfully took it, looked it over. “You don’t have a copy yet?” I shook my head. “I have a proof,” I said, clutching my bag. He looked at me with his Yoda eyes, waiting. I didn’t know if he wanted me to leave but somehow I gathered that he wanted to see it. Now. I looked behind me at the line of people eyeing me, like why is this doofus hogging the line? I fumbled for my bag and pulled out the envelope and handed it to him. He slid out the glossy proof and immediately stopped when he saw the opening page of a boy with his fist held straight out at us. He looked up at me and smiled, nodding and flipped through the other pages, pausing now and then to read a line or look at one of Jesse Watson’s amazing paintings.
I didn’t say a thing, didn’t dare explain what it was or what I was trying to say with the story. I may have asked him something like “Do you play chess?” He didn’t answer. I kept looking behind me and shrugging at the impatient line, but Walter seemed determined to flip through all the pages of my slim novella. When he was done, he put the pile down on the table, put his hands on top of them and nodded. “Yes,” was all he said, quietly, then nodded again, one more time. “Good.”
He finished signing my book. I didn’t know what he meant. Was that it? When he was done, I awkwardly shook his hand, scooped up my pile and my autographed book and got out while the getting was good. I’m pretty sure I thanked him. I ran to a quiet corner, dumped my stuff on the ground and cracked open the copy of Monster. In it, he wrote: To Greg–A writer.
The Master had spoken.
–G. Neri, YA author