August 12 – Walter Dean Myers

Everything in life is made up…You make up that you are happy. You make up that you are sad. You make up that you are in love. If you don’t make up your own life, who’s going to make it up for you? It’s bad enough when you die and everybody can make up their own stories about you.

—Mr. Hooft Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers was born Walter Milton Myers in Martinsburg, West Virginia on August 12th, 1937. His mother died when he was around two years old and he was given over to his father’s first wife, Florence, and her husband Herbert Dean, and raised with her family in Harlem. He took the middle name Dean to honor his foster family. From an early age Myers found solace in books, especially after his uncle was murdered and his family became dysfunctional with grief and alcohol. 

Myers struggled in school, he was considered ‘disruptive’ and ‘bad,’ and lashed out at kids who teased him because of his speech impediment. A teacher urged him to turn his energy to writing, and he wrote poetry and short stories and further developed his love for reading. Even so, his teenage years were tough and he dropped out of Stuyvesant High School in New York to join the Army at 17. After the Army he continued to struggle, and remembered a high school teacher urging him to keep writing no matter what. While working construction he wrote at night, composing columns for a local tabloid magazine and stories for men’s magazines. 

It was during this time that Myers read “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin. In that short story Myers recognized himself and realized he could write about black characters and the world he knew. He began writing stories he could see himself in, exorcising those troublesome years of his youth.

His first published book was the winner of a contest for black writers by the Council on Interracial Books for Children  – Where does the Day Go? published by Parents Magazine Press in 1969. 

Myers wrote over a hundred books in his 45 year career, both fiction and nonfiction, from picture books to novels, poetry and memoir. He is the most awarded, and one of the most prolific authors for young people. From 2012-2013 Myers was appointed by the Library of Congress as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. His overall mission with writing was to tell stories of those who had been ‘left off the shelf.’

His book Fallen Angels (1988), about the Vietnam War, won the Coretta Scott King Award, and is one of the most challenged books for children because of its use of profanity and realistic depictions of War. 

Monster (1999) was a National Book Award finalist and New York Times Bestseller. The novel is written in the form of a screenplay, depicting Sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon who is on trial for murder. 

Myers wrote a minimum of five pages a day until his death, on July 1, 2014 at the age of 76.

Lesson from Myers:

Walter Dean Myers had a rough start at life, and although he read voraciously, he didn’t see himself in any of the books he was reading. One story changed all that for him, and Myers made it his life’s work to creates worlds where children saw themselves represented and could find solace and inspiration. From the age of 32 to 76 he published over 100 books by harnessing his mission into writing every day, and he left behind an enormous legacy of hope for young people.  

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