Award-winning author Walter Dean Myers died Tuesday at the age of 76, leaving behind an impressive literary legacy. Myers published nearly 100 novels and non-fiction books for children and teens, most of which chronicled urban life, war, and African-American history in a gritty and realistic manner.
Myers tried his hand at writing at an early age, and in an interview with Scholastic, stated, “I was a good student, but a speech impediment was causing problems. One of my teachers decided that I couldn’t pronounce certain words at all. She thought that if I wrote something, I would use words I could pronounce. I began writing little poems. I began to write short stories, too.”
His interest in writing grew stronger after serving three years in the army during the Korean War. He entered a contest for black writers in Writers’ Digest, “which I knew didn’t have many black readers, so I figured I had a chance,” and won the $500 first prize. This led to his first picture book in 1969, Where Does the Day Go?, which went on to win an award from the Council on Interracial Books for Children.
Over the course of his writing career, he earned two Newbery Honors, three National Book Award nominations, six Coretta Scott King Awards and was the first recipient of the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2010, he was the U.S. nominee for the biennial, international Hans Christian Andersen Award. The Library of Congress named him the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in 2012.
Among his most popular titles are the 1988 Vietnam War novel Fallen Angels, the 2008 Iraq War novel Sunrise Over Fallujah and Monster, which focused on a 16-year-old boy charged with murder.
Several authors and publishers paid tribute to Myers since his death, including John Green, author of the best-selling The Fault in Our Stars.
“Myers inspired generations of readers, including a 12-year-old me when I read Fallen Angels, and then a 22-year-old me when I read Monster,” said Green. “It’s hard to imagine YA literature without him.”
“[Myers’ books] do not shy away from the sometimes gritty truth of growing up,” said Susan Katz, publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books. “He wrote books for the reader he once was, books he wanted to read when he was a teen. He wrote with heart and he spoke to teens in a language they understood. For these reasons, and more, his work will live on for a long, long time.”
Myers “changed the face of children’s literature by representing the diversity of the children of our nation in his award-winning books,” said Scholastic publisher Richard Robinson. “He was a deeply authentic person and writer who urged other authors, editors and publishers not only to make sure every child could find him or herself in a book, but also to tell compelling and challenging stories.”
Robinson went on to fondly recall a time he saw Myers speak about his book, Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary, at a convention, stating “As we waited for the booksellers to arrive, more than 100 hotel staff crowded into the dining room, drawn to this tall, dignified author they deeply admired.”
Myers is survived by his wife and two sons. He collaborated with his son Christopher, an illustrator and author, on Harlem and Jazz.