Walter Dean Myers (1937-2014)

Walter Dean Myers at Library of Congress in 2001
Public Domain Image

Walter Dean Myers was a critically acclaimed African American children’s author of award-winning fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. He was a tireless advocate of literacy and education who also promoted diversity in children’s literature. The New York Times best-selling author is best known for authentically portraying African American youth facing tough life choices.

Myers was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia on August 12, 1937, where he lived with his parents and four siblings until the age of eighteen months. His father, George Myers, sent him to Harlem, New York in 1939 following the death of his mother, Mary Myers. He was raised by his father’s first wife and her husband, Florence and Herbert Dean. Myers changed his name from Walter Milton Myers to Walter Dean Myers in honor of his foster parents.

Myers dropped out of the elite Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, New York and joined the Army on his 17th birthday due to a lack of discipline and the realization he could not afford college. His post-Army days found him without direction, facing family dysfunction and despair until he began concentrating on his writing. Winning a writing contest resulted in the publication of his first picture book, “Where Does the Day Go?” in 1969.

Walter Dean Myers understood what is was to be a black teenager struggling with identity issues in a white-dominated world. He discovered his voice and wrote realistically about urban life on the streets, in school and in the home, as well as crime and war in the 20th century.

Myers wrote about what he would have liked to have read as an adolescent in a language teens could relate to. Visits with incarcerated youngsters gave Myers insight and material that black youth could identify with. His compelling, heartfelt stories were often about troubled protagonists who struggled to make right choices and straighten out their lives. Myers’s young adult literature resonated with teenagers because they recognized themselves in his work.

During his 45-year career, Walter Dean Myers wrote more than 100 books including Fallen Angels (1988) about the Vietnam War; Monster (1998) about a 16-year-old boy wrongly charged with murder; Sunrise over Fallujah (2008) dealing with the Iraq war; and Lockdown (2011) in which a 14-year-old boy tries to escape the cycle of crime and violence. Myers has three books which will be published posthumously.

Myers was the recipient of numerous awards including two Newbery Honors, three National Book Award nominations, six Coretta Scott King Awards, the 2012 Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Award, and the first Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Walter Dean Myers, longtime Jersey City, New Jersey resident died on July 1, 2014 in Manhattan, New York. He is survived by his wife, Constance; son, Michael; son, Christopher, with whom he collaborated on several books; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His daughter, Karen, predeceased him.