Walter Dean Myers was born on August 12, 1937. For more than forty years, Myers wrote books for children and young adults, usually centered on the lives of young African Americans.
Myers' mother died when he was two years old, during the birth of his sister. His father was financially unable to care for him, and he was raised by family friends Herbert and Florence Dean. The Deans were strong believers in the importance of reading and literacy; Myers remembered them frequently reading to him or telling him stories.
Myers was a smart child, but not always a good student, and often found school frustrating. When he was in fifth grade, his teacher required each student to read aloud to the rest of the class on a regular basis. Myers found that assignment more challenging than most of his classmates because of a speech impediment; his teacher suggested that he write poems that would avoid the sounds he found most difficult, and use those for his required reading aloud.
Other teachers continued to encourage Myers to write, and to read more broadly. He continued to find school frustrating, though. He couldn't imagine that writing could be a financially sustainable career, and knew that he was unlikely to be able to afford college. At 17, Myers left school and joined the Army. His three years there were less exciting than he had imagined they would be, and he spent most of the time learning radio repair and playing basketball.
After leaving the Army, Myers spent several years working as an editor for a large publishing company. He wrote occasional essays and magazine articles. His first book, Where Does the Day Go?, was published in 1969, it was a picture book in which a boy's father helps him to understand the difference between day and night. It was published under the name "Walter M. Myers." After it was published, Myers changed his name to "Walter Dean Myers," in honor of the parents who had raised him.
Myers left the publishing industry to become a full-time writer in 1977, and began a highly prolific career. He wrote more than 100 books, and said that ideas for new books and stories came easily to him: "There is always one more story to tell, one more person whose life needs to be held up to the sun."
For Myers, most of those stories and lives were African American. His characters were usually city dwellers, often from Harlem, where he had grown up. Most of the time, his central characters were boys, and his work became popular among teachers and librarians who were looking for books that would hold their interest of their male students who were less enthusiastic about reading.
In 1980, Myers' novel The Young Landlords was awarded the American Library Association's Coretta Scott King Award, given each year to the author of an outstanding book for children or teens that reflects the African American experience. He would receive the King Award four more times, more than any other author.
Among those winners was the 1988 novel Fallen Angels (e-book | print), one of his best and most popular books. It's the story of a young soldier during the Vietnam War, and was controversial for its realistic depiction of war and its use of profanity. 1988 was a strong year for Myers; Scorpions (e-book | e-audio | print) was also published that year, and it was an Honor Book—a runner-up—for the Newbery Award for the best children's book of the year. Scorpions tells the tale of a 12-year-old boy being pressured to join the gang that his older brother had once led.
Fallen Angels and Scorpions were among the books cited in 1994 when Myers received the Margaret A. Edwards Award, given every two years in acknowledgment of an author's body of work in young adult literature. In 2012, Myers was appointed to a 2-year term as the Library of Congress's National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.
Myers last published work before his death in 2014 was an op-ed for The New York Times, called "Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books?" Inspired in part by that article, the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books was founded to promote diversity in children's literature. Among the first actions taken by We Need Diverse Books was the creation of the Walter Dean Myers Award to honor diverse authors who tell stories about marginalized people and communities, and the Walter Dean Myers Grant to provide financial support and encouragement for unpublished diverse authors.
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