Walter Dean Myers was a tall, angular, soft-spoken man who told great stories. He and his wife, Connie, were married for nearly half a century. He was one of the nation’s most successful and prolific authors of books for children and teenagers. He said he liked almost everyone he met, despite his rough upbringing.
So when he died Tuesday, at age 76, after a brief illness — the news began making the rounds Wednesday — the world of children’s literature felt like a decidedly smaller place.
He sold more than 15 million copies of his more than 100 books. He was a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and a three-time finalist for the National Book Award (in the Young People’s Literature category). He won the Coretta Scott King Award six times and was a Newbery Honor recipient twice.
His slim, tightly focused novels most often took on the full scope of difficult lives. “Monster.” “Lockdown.” “Autobiography of My Dead Brother.” “Slam!”
Other works were poetry and love songs to the Harlem neighborhood that raised and sustained him. He titled his memoir “Bad Boy.”
“I paint pictures of scenes for inner-city youth that are familiar, and I people the scenes with brothers and aunts and friends they all have met,” he wrote in an essay in March for the New York Times.
In that essay, he described his writing as an endeavor of the creative mind and of social work. “In 1969, when I first entered the world of writing children’s literature, the field was nearly empty. Children of color were not represented, nor were children from the lower economic classes. Today, when about 40 percent of the public school students nationwide are black and Latino, the disparity of representation is even more egregious. In the middle of the night I ask myself if anyone really cares.”
When he was named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, he took to the road more than two dozen times in his unpaid two-year term, always looking to convince children that reading could be their salvation, as it had been his.
“He took it very personally and worked very hard at it, and had a difficult tour schedule by his own choice,” said John Y. Cole, director of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress.
Books and reading were his lifelong loves and his means of personal deliverance.
He was born Walter Minton Myers in Martinsburg, West Virginia. His mother died when he was 2, and his father gave him to an ex-wife and her new husband, who lived in Harlem. They were very poor. His new father, Herbert Dean, a laborer, was illiterate and signed his name with an “X.” His new mother, Florence, who was Native American and German, drank to excess. (He changed his middle name to “Dean” as a sign of respect to these, his “real” parents.)
Young Walter had a speech impediment, which led to his being mocked in school, which led to fistfights. He read voraciously and was recognized as having academic gifts, but he dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Army at age 17. (His brother was killed fighting in Vietnam.) After his discharge three years later, Myers began a “drunken stumble” through the next several years, working at a series of jobs: messenger, laborer, factory worker. About this time, his uncle was murdered.
Buoyed by the advice from a high school teacher that he could write — and a brief, seminal conversation with James Baldwin — Myers worked his way to being an editor in a publishing house while writing on the side. When he was laid off as an editor in 1977, he stayed home and wrote full time.
He and his wife raised three children while living in Jersey City, New Jersey, and his passion for the written story never seemed to ebb. When profiled by The Washington Post in 2012, he was rising at 5 a.m., writing five pages a day, five days a week.
“He wrote books for the reader he once was — books he wanted to read when he was a teen,” said Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books. “He wrote with heart, and he spoke to teens in a language they understood.”