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Myers, Walter Dean(1937–) - Writer, Feels Alienated by Classic Works, Decides to be a Writer, Looks to Himself for Inspiration

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Given his background, Walter Dean Myers seems an unlikely literary success. He was a troubled child living with foster parents in Harlem. It seemed more probable that he would end up a “demographic disaster waiting to happen,” according to the Los Angeles Times , than a renowned writer of more than seventy-five critically acclaimed works for children and young adults. Myers is the acclaimed author of Monster, Handbook for Boys, Bad Boy, Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary , and Harlem: A Poem , among others. He is the first winner of the Michael L. Printz Award, a National Book Award finalist, and a Coretta Scott King, Boston Globe-Horn, Newbery, and Caldecott honoree. He speaks frankly about his difficult childhood and how he chose to take responsibility for his life and make something of it.

Myers was born in poverty in Martinsburg, West Virginia on August 12, 1937 to a father who had “many children by almost as many mothers,” according to the Los Angeles Times . After his mother died, he was handed over at age three by his father to a foster family, the Deans, who loved him dearly. They informally adopted him and raised him in Harlem. His new mother, a half-German, half-Indian woman who was minimally educated herself, taught him to read by reading True Romance magazine to him. Eventually he was able to read magazines and newspapers to her. When Myers’ teacher caught him reading comics in class, she tore them up and gave him a pile of classic books from her own collection. “That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Myers told the Times . He also found a sanctuary in the local public library: “Books took me, not so much to foreign lands and fanciful adventures,” he is quoted as saying at TeenRead.com, “but to a place within myself that I have been exploring ever since. The public library was my most treasured place. I couldn’t believe my luck in discovering that what I enjoyed most—reading—was free.”

Feels Alienated by Classic Works

But little of what Myers read reflected his own reality. Growing up in Harlem in the 1950s, Myers listened to the music of Motown and heard Billie Holliday and Duke Ellington when they performed at the Apollo Theater. It was common to see boxer Sugar Ray Robinson driving through town in his huge pink car or to see author Langston Hughes being interviewed on the street. “What Myers read … was largely limited to white authors, frequently British, and often about rich people,” according to the Sarasota Herald Tribune . “I began a quiet devaluation of myself,” he told the Sarasota Herald Tribune . “Books transmit values, so when a young person goes to school or a young person picks up a book, they should find things of value. But I could not find myself in those books.” That changed when he picked up James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues , a story about Harlem and the world in which Myers grew up.

Myers may have loved going to the public library, but he was not a typical bookworm. Along with speech problems, he had a bad attitude and was constantly clashing with his parents, school administrators, and local authorities. “I had this very severe speech difficulty, and I arrived in school ready to conquer the world, but no one could understand a thing I was saying. That was very frustrating for me, and I responded by being angry,” Myers wrote at TeenReads.com. His sixth grade teacher, a former Marine, decided to take Myers on. He spent the entire school year encouraging Myers, telling him he was smart, rather than focusing on his bad behavior. It worked. By the time he reached high school, Myers had “decided he was an intellectual,” according to the Los Angeles Times . However, no matter how bright he was, college was not on the horizon for the low-income kid from Harlem. Myers dropped out of high school at age seventeen and joined the U.S. Army.

Myers, at 6-foot-2-inches tall with some talent, found himself a star on an army basketball team. When his team lost a finals tournament on which a colonel had heavily bet, the colonel shipped the entire team to the Arctic as punishment. Myers did not see it as punishment, however; he loved the frozen adventure.

Decides to be a Writer

Once out of the army, Myers worked dead-end jobs. “So I decided to try writing. It was cheap, no overhead,” Myers told the Los Angeles Times . “You didn’t have to have success. I could think of myself as a writer, even a would-be writer, rather than a truck-loader.” He decided he would become a Great American Novelist. Instead, he was paid $15 or $20 per article by tabloids such as the National Enquirer . He later wrote fiction and nonfiction for men’s magazines. “It was the early 1960s, a dicey time in the country’s color consciousness,” he stated, according to the Los Angeles Times . But since he was writing, and not meeting his editors face to face, “I was facing absolutely no color line,” Myers said. But he was not yet making a living as a writer.

Myers finally found success in 1968, when he won a contest run by the Council on Interracial Books for Children, for the text of a picture book, Where Does the Day Go? It was his first book. From there, he worked as an editor at the Bobbs-Merrill publishing company while continuing to write and achieve recognition, particularly for his teen novels. After 1977 he wrote full-time for a living and did not have another job.

Myers wrote about what he knew. In Hoops (1981), a basketball coach tries to keep a talented teen on the right path. In Fallen Angels (1988), a Harlem teen fights in Vietnam and begins to question both the war itself and why black soldiers draw many of the dangerous assignments. 145th Street Stories (2000) and his memoir Bad Boy (2001) are about his childhood neighborhood and his troubled youth. His Handbook for Boys (2003) can be read as a guidebook about how young men fit into the larger society around them, and Harlem: A Poem (2004) is among his many works that reflect on his childhood home.

Looks to Himself for Inspiration

Myers’ writing also reflects his intense interest in history and culture. Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary (1993) is a biography of the late civil rights activist for preteens. For At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England (1999), Myers pored over historical documents and letters and pieced together the true story of an orphaned African girl given to Queen Victoria as a gift.

Myers writes fairy tales, historical novels, and biographies. But his “streetwise, honest, empathetic stories about African American teens facing challenges and making difficult decisions have made him a lion in his field,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel . “Over the years, he has reclaimed or transformed nearly everything that hurt or touched him into a book.” Myers’s 1999 novel Monster , in which a teen tells the story of his trial for robbery and murder, was his most commercially successful work, and increased Myers’ freedom to write about most anything he wants.

Chronology

1937

Born in Martinsburg, West Virginia on August 12

1954

Drops out of high school and joins Army

1968

Wins Council on Interracial Books for Children Award for Where Does the Day Go?

1970

Takes job as an editor at the Bobbs-Merrill publishing company

1977

Laid off from publishing company; begins to work full-time as a writer

1993

Writes biography Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary

1999

Writes novel Monster

2001

Writes memoir Bad Boy

2003

Writes Handbook for Boys

2004

Writes Harlem: A Poem

Myers lives with his family in Jersey City, New Jersey. He helped establish the Walter Dean Myers Publishing Institute, part of the Langston Hughes Children’s Literature Festival, and makes frequent appearances with the National Basketball Association’s “Read to Achieve” literacy program.

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