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“Once I began to read, I began to exist”: Tribute to Walter Dean Myers

Becky Brinkerhoff ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Walter Dean Myers, renowned children’s author, died at age 76 this past Tuesday. Myer’s penned over 100 hundred books during 45 year career, garnering a plethora of awards a long the way. From non-fiction to poetry, Myers’ styles of writing were as diverse as his characters. He painted the pictures that have been left out of the literary landscape: the portraits of diverse disenfranchised youth. Portraits that he didn’t have to relate to growing up.

He was born Walter Milton Myers in Martinsburg, West Virginia. His mother died when he was 18 months old and he was shipped off to Harlem to be raised by his father’s first wife. Myers grew up an avid reader. However, he began to wonder why none of the characters resembled him—a question that stuck with him his entire life.

After years of struggling through a segregated school with a stutter, Myer’s eventually dropped out and joined the army at age 17. Even without formal schooling, he never stopped writing, thank in part to one of his high school teachers. She had noticed his writing ability early on and though she knew he was eventually going to drop out, she told him to never stop writing. “It’s what you do,” she said.

He wrote books based on the difficult times in his life. He created the stories and characters that he needed in those hard times, but did not have. Others reflect the stories that he sought out: stories that would otherwise be unheard. He chased these voices by visiting youth detention centers and impoverished areas of the country. His work displayed a wide variety of characters and challenges: African princesses, war in Iraq, youth in prisons, the streets of Harlem.

Myer’s based his library of work on one ideal: representation matters. In The New York Times’, Myers wrote an article titled, Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books. He explained the importance of diversity in literature, writing, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?”

Myers knew that representation matters. He took the literary landscape in his hands and began to paint the portraits that had for too long remained unseen. Representation is humanization, according to Myers. And he created the representation that he did not see growing up, becoming a role model to diverse youth around the world.

Myers has three posthumous novel scheduled for publication. On a Clear Day will be coming out in September. Juba will be coming out in April 2015, the follows a graphic version of the novel Monster.

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