Date of birth : 1937-08-12
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Martinsburg, West Virginia
Nationality : African-American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2010-09-24
Walter Milton Myers born on 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 Constance Brendel (second wife), June 19, 1973; children: (first marriage) Karen, Michael Dean; (second marriage) Christopher. Military service: U.S. Army, 1954-57. Education: Attended State College of the City University of New York; Empire State College.
Walter Dean Myers is one of the best-known African-American writers of children's and young adult literature. Since the late 1960s, Myers has published dozens of books for young readers seeking realistic stories and recognizable characters. In the pages of his books Myers has tackled such pressing issues as teen pregnancy, crime, imprisonment, drug abuse, school shootings, and gang violence, as well as the ties of family and friendship that exist in black communities. He also frequently addresses historical topics in both fiction and nonfiction books and has written many biographies of notable black Americans. He often collaborates with his son, Christopher Myers, a respected illustrator, and has received numerous awards and honors, including the Coretta Scott King Award. Carmen Subryan noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: "Whether he is writing about the ghettos of New York, the remote countries of Africa, or social institutions, Myers captures the essence of the developing experiences of youth."
Raised by Foster Parents
Myers was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in 1937. Before he turned three years old, his mother died, leaving the family in chaos. Caring for his many children with no mother and little income, Myers's father placed the boy with his first wife and her new husband. With his foster parents, Herbert and Florence Dean, and their biological children, Myers moved to Harlem. His teachers recognized his intelligence and his foster parents encouraged him to read and write--although Herbert Dean was himself illiterate--but Myers was stigmatized because of a speech impediment. Many years later, in an interview with Juan Williams on National Public Radio, Myers admitted that he had carried another burden as a child: his foster mother's alcoholism. These factors led the young Myers to neglect his studies and get into trouble often.
Although he knew early on that he had a talent for writing poems and stories, Myers was convinced that professional writing was for those from an elite white background. "I was from a family of laborers, and the idea of writing stories or essays was far removed from their experience," Myers clarified in Something about the Author Autobiography Series. "Writing had no practical value for a black child... . Minor victories did not bolster my ego. Instead they convinced me that even though I might have some talent, I was still defined by factors other than my ability." Myers was classified as a "bright" student in school and was steered toward college-preparation courses. He won several awards--including a set of encyclopedias--for his essays and poetry, but, as he recounted in his 2001 memoir Bad Boy, he was torn between a hypermasculine drive to prove himself on the street and a more private, and, he felt, embarrassing, urge toward "book-smarts."
Although he thought he would never go to college, Myers continued writing. He bought a used typewriter with money he earned at a part-time job, and he read several books each week. At the age of seventeen he joined the army, still convinced that writing would be only a lifetime hobby. After three years of military service he was able to pay part of his college tuition with money from the G.I. Bill. He earned a bachelor's degree, married, and supported a family with a succession of jobs. Occasionally a periodical such as The Liberator or Negro Digest would publish one of his pieces. By 1970 Myers's marriage had ended. He was, however, beginning to make strides toward his goal of becoming a professional writer. In 1969 he had published his first book, Where Does the Day Go? A picture book for children, Where Does the Day Go? features a group of children from several ethnic backgrounds who discuss their ideas about night and day with a sensitive and wise black father during a long walk. The book won a contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. It also established Myers as an author who addressed the needs of a segment of children who had too long been overlooked by the American publishing industry.
Began Writing for Teens
During the 1970s Myers worked as a senior editor for the Bobbs-Merrill publishing house. He also wrote additional picture books and began writing young adult novels. Among his earliest fiction for teens were the books Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff and Mojo and the Russians. Both tales feature, in Subryan's words, adventures depicting "the learning experiences of most youths growing up in a big city where negative influences abound." Central to these and subsequent stories by Myers is the concept of close friendships as a positive, nurturing influence, as well as the healing and strengthening power of humor. Drawing on his own youthful experiences and the stories told him by his foster father, Myers has presented characters for whom urban life is an uplifting experience despite the dangers and disappointments lurking in the streets.
Books such as The Young Landlords and Sweet Illusions tell stories of teenagers faced with adult responsibilities. Hoops and The Outside Shot offer realistic treatments of the place of sports in young people's lives. It Ain't All for Nothin', Won't Know Till I Get There, and Scorpions, among others, show young adult characters who overcome the lure of crime and drugs or the pain of broken families. In 1992 Myers published The Righteous Revenge of Artemis Bonner, a humorous adventure-crime novel for young readers that showcased African-American characters in the Wild West. His next book, Brown Angels: An Album of Pictures and Verse, was something of a departure for Myers. While his focus was still the black American experience, he told of it in poetry that he had written to describe photographs of black children at the turn of the twentieth century.
A number of Myers's works center on historical or biographical subjects. In the nonfiction book Now Is Your Time! The African American Struggle for Freedom, Myers combined historical narrative with biographical accounts of courageous and innovative blacks throughout American history. Similarly, in Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary, Myers wove the story of the civil rights leader's life and work into the larger story of the historical context of the civil rights movement. For Amistad: A Long Road to Freedom, Myers included ample archival material--maps, newspaper clippings, illustrations, and photographs--to interpret the story of mutiny on the slave ship Amistad. In The Greatest: The Life of Muhammad Ali, Myers combined biographical detail with a broader exploration of politics, religion, racism, and the world of professional boxing to illustrate the life of one of the greatest and most controversial American athletes.
Wrote about War, Juvenile Crime
Beginning in the late 1980s war became a recurring topic in Myer's works. Fallen Angels, published in 1988, is a fictionalized account of a young black soldier's experiences fighting in the Vietnam War, where he begins to question his own motives for fighting and faces institutional racism in the armed forces. Praised for its unvarnished portrayal of war, Fallen Angels won the 1989 Coretta Scott King Award and is still considered a landmark novel in children's literature. In A Place Called Heartbreak: A Story of Vietnam, Myers recounted the experiences of Air Force Colonel Fred V. Cherry, the first African-American fighter pilot to become a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. Myers returned to the subject of Vietnam in Patrol: An American Soldier in Vietnam, an illustrated book for grade-school children for which Myers wrote the narrative.
In 2008 Myers wrote about the Iraq war in his novel Sunrise over Fallujah. A loose sequel to Fallen Angels, Sunrise over Fallujah centers on the nephew of the soldier depicted in the earlier novel. Against his father's wishes, the young man decides to forego college and join the military after witnessing the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. When he is sent to Iraq in the early days of the invasion, he learns that the situation is not as clear-cut as he had imagined, and, like his uncle in Vietnam, he finds that fighting in a war raises far more questions than it answers. Reviewing the novel in the New York Times Book Review, Leonard S. Marcus wrote simply, "This is an astonishing book."
In Monster he explored another complicated topic; the novel recounts a young man's experience in prison awaiting trial after he takes part in a fatal robbery. In 2000 the novel was awarded the first Michael L. Printz Award, an honor bestowed by the American Library Association (ALA) for excellence in young adult literature. In Shooter, Myers tackled the related problems of bullying and school shootings. In an interview in Scholastic News Online, he explained that he was motivated to write the book after going to speak to young people in juvenile detention centers and found that being bullied was a common experience among them. "[Being bullied] changes a kid. When you have an 11- or 12-year-old kid his or her life is full of potential. I want to show what turns these kids around. Is it the abuse they suffer? Why are kids abusing themselves? Because of the abuse they are already going through."
The author of more than ninety books, Myers was selected by the American Library Association to deliver the May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture for 2009. The selection is an award that is given to "an individual of distinction in the field of children's literature," according to the ALA Web site. Amy Kellman, chairperson of the selection committee explained, "Myers does not shy away from real and serious problems, yet his work offers hope as it stresses connections to others and personal responsibility. ... His themes of the human struggle are universal." In 2008 Myers told Marti Parham in Jet, "I'm never going to stop writing. It's my hobby as much as it is my profession. ...I do this because I love it. I'll write until I die."
Selected worksBooks(As Walter M. Myers)
* Where Does the Day Go?, illustrated by Leo Carty, Parents' Magazine Press, 1969.
* The Dancers, illustrated by Anne Rockwell, Parents' Magazine Press, 1972.
* The Dragon Takes a Wife, illustrated by Ann Grifalconi, Bobbs-Merrill, 1972.
* Fly, Jimmy, Fly!, illustrated by Moneta Barnett, Putnam, 1974.
* Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff, Viking, 1975.
* The World of Work: A Guide to Choosing a Career, Bobbs-Merrill, 1975.
* Social Welfare, F. Watts, 1976.
* Brainstorm, with photographs by Chuck Freedman, F. Watts, 1977.
* Victory for Jamie, Scholastic Book Services, 1977.
* It Ain't All for Nothin', Viking, 1978.
* The Young Landlords, Viking, 1979.
* The Black Pearl and the Ghost; or, One Mystery after Another, illustrated by Robert Quackenbush, Viking, 1980.
* The Golden Serpent, illustrated by Alice Provensen and Martin Provensen, Viking, 1980.
* Hoops, Delacorte, 1981.
* The Legend of Tarik, Viking, 1981.
* Won't Know Till I Get There, Viking, 1982.
* The Nicholas Factor, Viking, 1983.
* Tales of a Dead King, Morrow, 1983.
* Mr. Monkey and the Gotcha Bird, illustrated by Leslie Morrill, Delacorte, 1984.
* Motown and Didi: A Love Story, Viking, 1984.
* The Outside Shot, Delacorte, 1984.
* Sweet Illusions, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1986.
* Crystal, Viking, 1987.
* Shadow of the Red Moon, Harper, 1987.
* Fallen Angels, Scholastic, Inc., 1988.
* Me, Mop, and the Moondance Kid, Delacorte, 1988.
* Scorpions, Harper, 1988.
* The Mouse Rap, Harper & Row, 1990.
* Mop, Moondance, and the Nagasaki Knights, Delacorte Press, 1992.
* Now Is Your Time!: The African American Struggle for Freedom, HarperCollins, 1992.
* A Place Called Heartbreak: A Story of Vietnam, illustrated by Frederick Porter, Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1992.
* The Righteous Revenge of Artemis Bonner, HarperCollins, 1992.
* Somewhere in the Darkness, Scholastic, 1992.
* Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary, Scholastic, 1993.
* Young Martin's Promise, Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1993.
* Darnell Rock Reporting, Delacorte Press, 1994.
* The Glory Field, Scholastic, 1994.
* The Dragon Takes a Wife, illustrated by Fiona French, Scholastic, 1995.
* Glorious Angels: An Album of Pictures and Verse, HarperCollins, 1995.
* Shadow of the Red Moon, illustrated by Christopher Myers, Scholastic, 1995.
* The Story of the Three Kingdoms, illustrated by Ashley Bryan, HarperCollins, 1995.
* How Mr. Monkey Saw the Whole World, illustrated by Synthia Saint James, Doubleday, 1996.
* More River to Cross: An African American Photograph Album, Harcourt Brace, 1996.
* Smiffy Blue: Ace Crime Detective: Case of the Missing Ruby and Other Stories, Scholastic, 1996.
* Toussaint L'overtoure: The Fight for Haiti's Freedom, illustrated by Jacob Lawrence, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
* Amistad: A Long Road to Freedom, Dutton, 1997.
* Harlem, illustrated by Christopher Myers, Scholastic, 1997.
* Angel to Angel, HarperCollins, 1998.
* Slam!, Scholastic, 1998.
* At Her Majesty's Request, Scholastic, 1999.
* The Journal of Joshua Loper: A Black Cowboy, Chisholm Trail, 1871 (My Name Is America), Scholastic, 1999.
* The Journal of Scott Pendleton Collins: World War II, Normandy, France (My Name Is America), Scholastic, 1999.
* Monster, HarperCollins, 1999.
* 145th Street: Short Stories, Delacorte, 2000.
* The Blues of Flats Brown, illustrated by Nina Laden, Holiday House 2000.
* The Greatest: The Life of Muhammad Ali, Scholastic, 2000.
* Malcolm X: A Fire Burning Brightly, HarperCollins 2000.
* Bad Boy: A Memoir, HarperCollins, 2001.
* The Journal of Biddy Owens: The Negro Leagues, 1948 (My Name Is America), Scholastic, 2001.
* Handbook for Boys: A Novel, HarperCollins, 2002.
* Patrol: An American Soldier in Vietnam, illustrated by Ann Grafalconi, Harper Collins, 2002.
* Three Swords for Granada, Holiday House, 2002.
* The Beast, Scholastic, 2003.
* Blues Journey, illustrated by Christopher Myers, Holiday House, 2003.
* The Dream Bearer, HarperCollins, 2003.
* A Time to Love: Stories from the Old Testament, illustrated by Christopher Myers, Scholastic, 2003.
* Antarctica, Scholastic, 2004.
* Constellation, Holiday House, 2004.
* Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices, Holiday House, 2004.
* I've Seen the Promised Land; Martin Luther King, HarperCollins, 2004.
* Shooter, HarperCollins, 2004.
* Southern Fried, St. Martin's Minotaur, 2004.
* Autobiography of My Dead Brother, illustrated by Christopher Myers, HarperCollins, 2005.
* The Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage, HarperCollins, 2006.
* Jazz, illustrated by Christopher Myers, Holiday House, 2006.
* Street Love, HarperCollins, 2006.
* Game, HarperTeen, 2008.
* Sunrise over Fallujah, Scholastic, 2008.
New York State Department of Labor, Brooklyn, NY, employment supervisor, 1966-69; Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., New York City, senior trade book editor, 1970-77; writer, 1977-.
Council on Interracial Books for Children Award, 1968; American Library Association "Best books for young adults" citations, 1978-79, 1982; Coretta Scott King Awards, 1980, 1984, 1991-93, 1997; Parents' Choice Award, Parents' Choice Foundation, 1982, 1984, 1987-88, 1990, 1992; Newbery Honor Book, 1989, 1993; Golden Kite Award Honor Book, 1991; Jane Addams Award Honor Book, 1991; Orbis Pictus Award Honor Book, 1992; Boston Globe/Horn Book Award Honor Book, 1992, 1997; Jeremiah Ludington Award, Educational Paperback Association, 1993; CRAB-berry Award, 1993; Margaret A. Edwards Award, American Library Association/School Library Journal, 1994; Michael L. Printz Award, 1999.
View the full website biography of Walter Myers.