Walter Dean Myers Biography
August 12, 1937 • Martinsburg, West Virginia
Walter Dean Myers is a pioneer of young adult fiction. His novels about urban teens and the challenges they face have won him both a devoted readership and dozens of book awards. His eighty-plus titles include Monster, Scorpions, and a memoir of his own youth, Bad Boy. Once thought to have been aimed at the so-called "at-risk" reader, Myers's books have stood the test of time as "poignant, tough stories for and about kids who don't appear in most storybooks," asserted Sue Corbett in a Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service report. "Children whose fathers are absent or jailed. Children who share playgrounds with drug dealers and gangs. Teens struggling to maintain their dignity while living with poverty, violence and fear."
Raised by another family
Born in 1937, Myers's own early life was marked by challenges, but they were those of a different era. He was born in the midst of the Great Depression (1929–41), and spent the first few years of his life in a hardscrabble West Virginia town called Martinsburg. It was about ten miles away from the former plantation on which his ancestors had once toiled as slaves. His family was extremely poor, and his mother died when he was a toddler, while giving birth to another child. A married woman who had been a friend of his mother's, Florence Dean, adopted him. Such informal adoptions were not unusual during the era. Though he was christened Walter Milton Myers, he later substituted "Dean" for his middle name in honor of the foster family who raised him.
The Deans soon moved to New York City and settled in Harlem, the northern Manhattan neighborhood that was the center of black life in the city. His foster father, Herbert, worked as a janitor and also in factories, often holding down two jobs to make ends meet. Both he and his wife had little formal schooling, but Florence had taught herself to read, and she then taught her adopted son by letting him read the True Romance magazine stories she liked. He progressed to reading comic books, but a teacher discovered him with one in class at P.S. 125 one day. "She grabbed my comic book and tore it up," Myers recalled on a biography that appeared on the Scholastic Web site. "I was really upset, but then she brought in a pile of books from her own library. That was the best thing that ever happened to me." He became a bookworm, and regularly checked books out of his local library—but he carried them home in a paper bag so that other kids would not tease him.
"I'm not interested in building ideal families in my books. I'm more attracted to reading about poorer people, and I'm more attracted to writing about them as well."
A caring community
Although Harlem would later become a violent, drug-troubled area, it was a far more balanced community when Myers was growing up there. Because neighborhoods elsewhere were not welcoming to African Americans, Harlem was home to black judges, doctors, and other professionals, as well as to ordinary working families. Myers even lived near the poet Langston Hughes (1902–1967). Hughes was one of the leading names of the Harlem Renaissance, the flourishing of African American music, literature, and other forms of art that began in the 1920s. Myers once spied the famous writer sitting on his front steps "drinking beer, but I didn't think much of him," he told Jennifer M. Brown in a Publishers Weekly interview. "He didn't fit my stereotype of what serious writers should be. He wasn't writing about Venice."
Major Works by Myers
Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff (novel), Viking Press, 1975.
Mojo and the Russians (novel), Viking Press, 1977.
Hoops (novel), Delacorte Press, 1981.
Fallen Angels (novel), Scholastic, 1988.
The Great Migration: An American Story (poems; paintings by Jacob Lawrence), HarperCollins, 1993.
Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary (biography), Scholastic, 1993.
The Glory Field (novel), Scholastic, 1994.
Slam! (novel), Scholastic, 1996.
Harlem: A Poem, illustrated by Christopher Myers, Scholastic, 1997.
Amistad: A Long Road to Freedom (nonfiction), Dutton, 1998.
At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England (nonfiction), Scholastic, 1999.
Monster (novel; illustrated by Christopher Myers), HarperCollins, 1999.
145th Street: Short Stories, Delacorte Press, 2000.
The Blues of Flats Brown (picture book; illustrated by Nina Laden), Holiday House, 2000.
Bad Boy: A Memoir, HarperCollins, 2001.
Handbook for Boys (novel), HarperCollins, 2002.
Myers retreated into books in part because he suffered from a speech impediment. When other kids made fun of him, he sometimes hit them. One teacher realized he could read aloud in class with little difficulty if he was reading words that he had written himself, and encouraged him to write more. Another teacher found a speech therapist for Myers, and also channeled the child's bossy nature into a role as the class leader. "He gave me permission to be a bright kid, permission to be smart," a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article by Jim Higgins quoted Myers as saying.
During his teens Myers became disillusioned over his lot in life. He continued to get into trouble at school, and realized that not many avenues would be open to him once he left high school. Even though he was a bright student, he knew there were few resources available for blacks. "My folks couldn't send me to even a free college," he told Amanda Smith in Publishers Weekly. "There were days when I didn't have clothing to wear to high school, and I just didn't go." He dropped out of Stuyvesant High School, and, on his seventeenth birthday in 1954, he enlisted in the Army. He served three years and returned to New York City to take a series of low-paying jobs. He worked in the post office, as a messenger, and as a factory interviewer for the New York State Bureau of Labor.
Entered writing contest
Myers had been writing since his school days, and had even won awards for his work. He had never thought that his short stories could provide a career for him, but in the 1960s he began to submit his work to magazines. He also found freelance work for publications like the National Enquirer. In 1968 he entered and won a competition sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children for African-American writers. His winning entry became a picture book, Where Does the Day Go? Its simple, charming plot involves a walk in the park led by a kindly African American dad; he takes along several children from different ethnic backgrounds, and all offer their various ideas about the sun, moon, and passage of time.
In the early 1970s Myers wrote several other picture books for young readers, including The Dragon Takes a Wife and How Mr. Monkey Saw the Whole World. He was hired at the Bobbs-Merrill publishing house, and spent seven years there learning the book business from the editorial side. He went on to earn a college degree from Empire State College. His first novel for teens, Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff, was published in 1975. It came about entirely by accident, thanks to a short story he had submitted to his agent, who sent it on to an editor. The editor assumed it was a chapter in a book, and when she ran into Myers at a party she asked how the rest of the project was going. As he recalled in the interview with Smith, "I said, 'It goes like this,' and I made it up on the spot. She offered me a contract."
Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff tells the story of the summer when Francis, a.k.a. "Stuff," moves to 116 th Street in Harlem. He and his friends, Clyde and Sam, shoot baskets and try to steer clear of the dangers on the streets. The book became a classic of young adult fiction, praised by readers for its humor, and taught in schools for its message about self-esteem and community. Myers found a steady market for his novels after that, and began publishing one every year. His 1979 title The Young Landlords, about a group of teens who are given an apartment building to manage on their own, was the first of his works to win a Coretta Scott King Award from the American Library Association. The annual honor is given to the top book for young readers by an African American author.
Teen titles won devoted audience
Myers would win the King award several more times for other books. Motown and Didi: A Love Story was the next to earn the honor. The 1985 novel is set in Harlem, where Didi and her boyfriend, Motown, fall in love. He wants to find a good job, while Didi hopes to go to college, but their more immediate goal is to keep her brother out of trouble and away from the local drug kingpin.
Four years later, Myers won again for Fallen Angels, about a Harlem teen who enlists in the Army during the Vietnam War (1954–75). Myers called upon his own recollections of military service to write it, but the work was really written in honor of his younger brother, Sonny, who followed in Myers's footsteps and enlisted in the Army in 1968. Sonny was sent to Southeast Asia at the height of American involvement in the Vietnam conflict, and was killed in combat on his first day. Like most of Myers's works, it became a staple on school and public library bookshelves. Years later, he said the best letter he ever received from a reader was from a young man who had wanted to enlist in the military because of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. "He was so excited he couldn't wait until he turned 17 to join up," Myers recalled in the interview with Smith. "He read my book and changed his mind."
Scorpions, which also appeared in 1988, recounts the story of Jamal, a middle-schooler who unwisely accepts a gun when an older teen asks him to hold onto it for him. The plot was inspired by a true-life tale: Myers and his sons once played ball in their neighborhood park with another kid, who later disappeared. They later learned he was involved in a shooting. Somewhere in the Darkness, which won the King award in 1993, is a characteristic Myers tale, both in its challenging fictional premise and in the compelling story the author weaves around it. This novel involves Jimmy Little, who lives in Harlem with his foster family. His father, Crab, has just been released from prison, and arrives to take Jimmy on a road trip. On their journey down South, Jimmy begins to realize his father is fatally ill and wants to clear his name of the crime that sent him to prison.
Collector of vintage images
Myers has written historical fiction as well as his contemporary novels for young adults. He has also written poetry and compiled photo albums that feature images of African American families over the generations. Myers collects these historical photos from rare book dealers and antiques stores during his book tours across the United States. One of these works is One More River to Cross: An African-American Photograph Album, which depicts families' journeys, from the slavery era to the migration to northern cities in the early years of the twentieth century. The idea for these books, Myers said, came when he was teaching writing to youngsters in a Jersey City elementary school near his home. As an assignment, he had them bring in images of their grandparents when they were children. "The kids loved the photographs," he explained to Brown. "They wanted to learn why their grandparents would wear those kinds [of] clothes, shoes, what kind of house they lived in."
Myers has worked with his son, Christopher, who illustrated Harlem: A Poem, another Coretta Scott King award-winner. His 1999 novel Monster won that award, as well as the Michael L. Printz Award, another honor from the American Library Association. Monster recounts the terrible chain of events that lands sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon on trial for murder. Steve, who comes from a stable household and had hoped to become a filmmaker, was asked by some tougher kids in his neighborhood to serve as lookout during a store robbery. The owner is killed, and the teens are arrested. Myers spares no detail when describing Steve's fear of being preyed upon by the veteran teen criminals with whom he is housed. Patty Campbell, in a review for Horn Book, compared Myers's latest work to the classics Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders, and others. She asserted that Myers's "stunning new novel ... joins these landmark books. Looking backward, Monster is the peak achievement of a career that has paralleled the growth of the genre."
Myers has written dozens of books over the years, including biographies of Malcolm X (1925–1965) and Muhammad Ali (1942–). He finally chronicled his own fascinating life story in Bad Boy: A Memoir, which appeared in 2002. He dedicated it to the sixth-grade teacher who found him professional help for his speech difficulty. Myers writes of his teen years in Harlem, and his flirtations with the criminal element, but also details his path to becoming a successful author. His story is all the more remarkable when he reveals that his foster father never learned to read—a discovery Myers made only after the man died. "Sometimes my father would have me read something to him," Myers wrote in his autobiography, "telling me it was because of his weak eyes." Many years later, when his father was dying, Myers gave him a book on which he and his son had collaborated, but his father never commented on it. "After his death, I went through his papers and saw the childlike scrawl that he used to fill out forms, and the misunderstandings he had of those forms.... Other correspondence indicated that his business affairs were being supervised by a friend at his job. It was then I realized that he had never commented on any of my books because he couldn't read them"
For More Information
Brown, Jennifer M. "Walter Dean Myers Unites Two Passions." Publishers Weekly (March 22, 1999): p. 45.
Campbell, Patty. " Monster. " Horn Book (January 2000): p. 42.
Corbett, Sue. "Walter Dean Myers Has Been Writing Poignant, Tough Stories for and About At-Risk Kids." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (January 26, 2000): p. K6508.
Gallo, Don. "A Man of Many Ideas: Walter Dean Myers." Writing! (February-March 2004): p. 10.
Higgins, Jim. "Former 'Bad Boy' Taps into Youths' Minds, Struggles." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (May 26, 2002): p. 1.
McElmeel, Sharron L. "A Profile: Walter Dean Myers." Book Report (September-October 2001): p. 42.
Smith, Amanda. "Walter Dean Myers: This Award-Winning Author for Young People Tells It Like It Is." Publishers Weekly (July 20, 1992): p. 217.
" Somewhere in the Darkness. " Publishers Weekly (March 9, 1992): p. 58.
Myers, Walter Dean. "Author Studies Homepage." Scholastic Books. http://www2.scholastic.com/teachers/authorsandbooks/authorstudies/authorhome.jhtml?authorID=67&collateralID=5250&displayName=Biography (accessed on July 15, 2004).