by Sharron L. McElmeel
UPDATE: November 2014
Walter Dean Myers grew up down the block from Langston Hughes and clearly remembers the day Hughes chased his brother down the streets of Harlem for throwing a candy wrapper into Hughes' tiny garden plot. Not until Myers was an adult did he really appreciate Langston Hughes's short stories and his column in the black newspaper that came to influence Myers's own work. "I was surprised that anyone would publish stories about what I called 'ordinary life,'" said Myers. It is from his own memories of the ordinary life in Harlem that Meyers has created the rich tapestries of the dozens of books that have earned him five Coretta Scott King Awards, Newbery honors, the Margaret A. Edwards award, the first Michael L. Printz Award, and the first Virginia Hamilton Literary Award. In a New York Times article, Myers said he tries "to create characters so compelling that kids will identify with them and with their positive decisions." Many feel that Myers understands the problems of young African Americans better than any other author today.
Myers was born into a large family in Martinsburg, West Virginia, but when Myers's mother died in childbirth, a friend (NOTE: this woman was actually Walter's father's first wife) offered to raise Walter. His father, struggling to care for his large family, agreed. So at age three, Walter was put on a Greyhound bus and sent to his foster parents, Herbert and Florence Dean, and to Harlem. Walter found Harlem a vibrant and exciting place. His earliest memories are of reading with his foster mother, a woman who had little education but had taught herself to read. His foster father was a factory worker.
Walter's life, although filled with love, was not an easy one. He was a "troubled young man." When he spoke he stuttered; his classmates ridiculed him. With the encouragement of his fifth-grade teacher, he found that he could speak in front of a group if he read words he had written, and he began writing poems. His teachers classified him as "bright," but a '"know-it-all" friend of an aunt discouraged Walter by telling him he did not speak distinctly enough. He wanted to become a lawyer but knew his parents did not have the resources to send him to college. There was much discouragement and no other support system. Walter covered up his lack of confidence with bad behavior. He spent many of his school days in the principal's office or suspended. From the time he was ten or eleven, he filled notebooks with his writing, but he never thought of writing as a career.
Myers played in the streets; later he ran with a gang. By the time he was fifteen, he had quit school. He went back but quit again at the age of sixteen. At that time, "black kids with no place to go were welcome in the Army." So that is where Walter went. In 1957, after three years of Army duty, he returned to Harlem, where he worked at any job he could find: factory hand, clerical worker, and postal clerk. "Few of the jobs," Myers says, "were worth mentioning. Leaving school seemed less like a good idea." But writing was still on his mind, and it was a way to earn a few extra dollars when he could sell an article or two. He wrote "adventure stuff" for the National Enquirer and advertising copy for cemeteries.
The Beginning of a Career
Myers obtained an undergraduate degree from Empire State College-despite not having graduated from high school-worked for the Department of Labor, and for seven years worked as an editor at Bobbs-Merrill Company. He managed to get some poetry, stories, and articles published, but it was when he won a contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children that he was able to seriously consider writing as a career. That book, Where Does the Day Go? was published by Parents' Magazine Press in 1969. Interestingly, the book won in the picture book category, and his first few books were in that genre.
Myers's first novel was Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff (1975). His books were set in Harlem and focused on survival when faced with negative influences. The Young Landlords (1979) featured teens who learned responsibility when they were given a ghetto apartment building to manage. The chief protagonist in Hoops (1981) gained insight into life when he observed an older friend's involvement with gamblers. Several of Myers's books infuse basketball into the plot. Those scenes, as well as characters named for Myers's friends (Binky, Light Billy, and Clyde) came straight from his childhood experiences in Harlem.
After 20 years of writing at night, the idea of becoming a full-time writer surfaced when Myer's was laid off from a publishing house that was cutting back its staff. Myers's wife, Constance, encouraged him to use the opportunity to freelance. He decided that if he intended to make money as a writer he would have to structure his writing schedule. He first submits his book ideas to a publisher, and if the editor thinks the idea has possibility, Myers spends about a month shaping the book in his mind. He creates an outline and a complete profile of each of the main characters. He cuts out pictures of all of his characters and his wife creates a collage of them, which he hangs on the wall over the computer. He then creates the story's first draft. Although the first draft is usually very close to the final version, Myers stresses that revision is very important. He doesn't view himself as particularly talented but views his writing as a matter of work ethic: He feels that most writers who fail simply fail to finish. Early in his career his goal was to write 10 pages per day-and he usually did. In recent years he has cut that goal back to seven so that he has "more time to annoy my family."
Walter Dean Myers uses memories from his days in Harlem to construct his novels and tries to show more than the poverty and negative attitude found in many books set there. He uses humor, realistic dialogue, and hopeful scenarios to depict the Harlem he knew. Other stories have come from other experiences. Fallen Angels, a story of a 17-year-old from Harlem, fighting in a war he doesn't understand, came from Myers's own days in Vietnam. The book is dedicated to Walter's younger brother, Thomas Wayne "Sonny" Myers, who died in Vietnam in 1968. The Nicholas Factor grew from a trip Myers and his wife made to Peru. The story involves Peruvian Indians and an elite group who feel they have the right to impose their views on society. Myers' books, regardless of the settings, always tell an entertaining story. In Motown and Didi, A Love Story (1984), he sets a love story in Harlem, against a backdrop of junkies, threats, danger, and death. He tells of a long-absent father suddenly entering the life of a 14-year-old in Mouse Rap (1990). Somewhere in the Darkness (1992) is about a father, just released from jail, who whisks a teenage boy away from a foster home. Myers has addressed suicide, teen pregnancy, adoption, and parental neglect and has written historical novels and novels about historical characters.
In The Glory Fields (1996) Myers addresses the subject of slavery and prejudice through the story of five generations of the Lewis family-a family that began in Africa and was brought to South Carolina. The story idea for At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England (1999) began when a London used-book dealer handed Walter a packet of letters concerning an African princess who had been a protege of Queen Victoria's in the mid-1800s. When research acquainted Myers with the fact that 30 percent of the cowboys in the American West were either African American or Mexican, he penned The Journal of Joshua Loper: A Black Cowboy on the Chisholm Trail, 1871 (1999). He focused on contributions by African Americans during World War II when he wrote The Journal of Scott Pendleton Collins: A World War II Soldier, Normandy, France, 1944 (1999). This soldier's diary begins during basic training at Fort Dix and continues to the days of battle in France.
The First Recipient of the Michael A. Printz Award
In 2000, Walter Dean Myers's Monster earned the first Michael A. Printz Award. The manuscript came to HarperCollins editor, Phoebe Yeh, as a play that told the gripping story of Steve, a teenager on trial for murder. During his trial, Steve, a budding screenwriter, tells his own story as he writes the screenplay about the predicament he is in. Sensing that the story would be difficult for readers to grasp because all the information about the crime and the events that surrounded the situation would be filtered through the dialogue, camera angles, and setting, Yeh suggested that Myers incorporate Steve's journal entries into the retelling. In this way, Myers could use Steve's journal to take readers through some of the situations that might be more difficult if included only as part of Steve's screenplay. Meyers's youngest son, Christopher, created the illustrations for the jacket and for 15 interior illustrations. A photographer took pictures of various subjects posing as characters in Walter's book. Jackie Harper, from HarperCollins, posed as Steve's mother; a brother of Chris's girlfriend posed as Steve himself. Chris used scans of these photographs to help create the final illustrations. The fingerprints are Myers's.
The year 2000 brought 145th Street: Short Stories, 10 stories of life in Harlem. In 2001, Patrol, a story of an American soldier in Vietnam, was published, as was Myers's story of a professional baseball player in The Journal of Biddy Owens, the Negro Leagues. A biography of Muhammad Ali, The Greatest: the Life and Career of Muhammad Ali and a poetic journey into the blues, Blues Journey, are also scheduled for publication, with illustrations by Christopher Myers. In 2002, Myers will take a look at his own growing up in Harlem, in Bad Boy: A Memoir.
At birth Myers was given the name Walter Milton Myers. In his adulthood he took the name of his foster parents as his middle name-thus honoring them for their love, patience, and guidance throughout his youth. Despite his troubles as a young man, Meyers learned along the way to love reading and writing, a love that eventually brought him to the place where he is an admired icon in the realm of literature for young readers. The father of three children - Karen, Michael Dean, and Christopher-Myers moved from Harlem to Jersey City, New Jersey, where Christopher was raised and where Myers lives with his wife Constance and continues to write.
UPDATE: Walter Dean Myers died July 1, 2014, after a very briefillness. At the time of his death Walter was living in Jersey City, New Jersey, with his wife Constance. He is survived by Constance, as well as his two sons, Christopher and Michael Dean. He was predeceased by his daughter, Karen. His mother died when Walter was just a toddler and his father sent him to his first wife, Florence Dean, and her husband Herbert Dean who raised him. Only after his death did Walter learn that his father, Herbert Dean, had not known how to read. When Walter Dean Myers was named the 2012-13—National Ambassador for Young People's Literature he made it part of his mission to encourage literacy. -- Walter Dean Myers b. 8.12.37- 7.1.14 RIP
Sharron L. McElmeel is director of McBookwords www.mcbookwords.com (a literacy organization) and an instructor of children's literature and young adult literature at the University of Wisconsin Stout's online education programs. She often writes and speaks about authors/illustrators and their books. www.mcelmeel.com.
This article first appeared in Library Talk (first publication rights only) Copyright for all other uses copyright by Sharron L. McElmeel. The contents of this article may not be copied or e-mailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder`s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or e-mail articles for individual use. First appeared: Book Report, Sep/Oct2001, Vol. 20 Issue 2, p42, 3p. Current Source: http://www.mcelmeel.com/author/otherwritings/myers.html