This year we lost a great YA writer when we lost Walter Dean Myers. As a librarian of young adults, I can safely say that no other writer reached our young teen boys of color the way that Myers did. Books such as Monster, Fallen Angels, Hoops, and Scorpion were rarely on the shelf. Getting that age group to read is a huge challenge, but Myers accomplished this feat quite well.
I was fortunate enough to meet him at an American Library Association Conference in 2009. He was quite elegant, reserved in nature but it was obvious that he was taking everything in, as writers do. This man wrote over 100 books and his work remains and will remain though he has left this earth plane.
I did a little bit background research and saw that he was born in West Virginia. His mother died while giving birth to his younger sister so a woman named Florence Dean adopted him. As I continued to read, the story became more interesting which seems to be the stuff that creates writers and artists. This woman, Florence, was the first wife of his biological father; so she and her second husband, Herbert took Walter in and made them their son. What love!
They eventually moved to New York City and ended up in Harlem, at a time when it was still flourishing and was the home of the black middle class including doctors, lawyers and school teachers. He said it was before it became the drug infested place that it is today. He lived close to Langston Hughes and often saw him sitting on his porch.
But Walter had a speech impediment and he ended up in several fights because the other children teased him. One teacher discovered that if she let him read writings that he had written himself, he could read with ease and fluency. She went on to get him a speech therapist to help him.
All of these things helped to shape him as he observed life around him. He also read whatever he could find and once a teacher took a comic book from him and destroyed it. But then that same teacher started bringing him books from his personal library and Walter would put them in a paper bag to disguise what he was carrying around. In an interview, when asked what he most valued, he replied, “My books. They were my only real friends growing up.”
He vowed that he would write about poorer people and from the looks of the vacant spots on the book shelves where his books belong, he mastered that quite well. The male readers highly identify with his stories of inner city life and the plight of young boys on the mean streets of the big cities.
He did drop out of high school at some point and went on into the Army. I was fortunate enough to have him autograph his book called Sunrise over Fallujah, which dealt with military life. I was in the library the other day and when I saw one of his books on the New Books shelf, I picked it up immediately.
It is called On a Clear Day and deals with a 16-year old girl named Dahlia Grillo. It is a futuristic piece taking place in the year of 2035. She has been asked to join a group of teens who want to change the world by fighting the controlling forces. She has been asked to join because of her exceptional math skills. They have just gone to London to meet other groups on the same mission. At first, Dahlia is hesitant but after the recent loss of her aunt who raised her, she feels that she has nothing to lose.
I am halfway through it and again, it is geared for those around 7th or 8th grade. It was published posthumously and I am happy to have another work by this prolific author to see where this tale will lead us. Any work by Walter Dean Myers is a wonderful experience and I still say that most great art is borne out of pain. The hardships of his childhood shaped someone who read, put pen to paper and left over 100 books behind for us to enjoy. What a legacy and a testament to a life well lived!
Lynn November 2, 2014