Friday, July 4, 2014

Walter Dean Myers: An Appreciation

I was saddened to learn of the passing of the great young adult author, Walter Dean Myers. Myers was an important presence on my classroom bookshelves. His books spoke to a segment of my students who found very few voices they could relate to in literature. He wrote of poor African American kids on the streets of Harlem. Myers was acutely aware of the need for these children to see themselves in the pages of books.

I had the pleasure of meeting Myers on one memorable occasion. I was struck by his large physical presence and gentle manner. He embraced the great responsibility any author of young adult literature carried and he was determined to meet that responsibility with books that were of high quality and which transmitted values for young people to emulate.

Myers was intensely proud of maintaining his residence in Jersey City, New Jersey. He said he could see the children he was writing about walk past his window as he worked in his home.

As a young man Myers was an avid reader, but as he grew through his teenage years he realized that the books he was reading had little to say about young people of color like him. He grew resentful. He stopped reading and dropped out of school. Reading James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” turned things around. Myers found that “by humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me.”

Myers says that after reading Baldwin he discovered his mission in life. As he said in a March 2014 essay he wrote for the New York Times:

I realized that this was exactly what I wanted to do when I wrote about poor inner-city children — to make them human in the eyes of readers and, especially, in their own eyes. I need to make them feel as if they are part of America’s dream, that all the rhetoric is meant for them, and that they are wanted in this country.

For many of the students in my classrooms in the 1980s and for surely thousands of students in the decades following, Walter Dean Myers achieved his mission. In my room his books, like Fast Sam, Cool Clyde and Stuff, Fallen Angels, Monster and Scorpions were read. They didn’t just stand there forlornly, spines sticking out, never to be pulled from the shelf. They were yanked off that shelf. They showed the wear of pages being turned briskly. Of being tossed into lockers and book bags. They showed the food stains from being read in the cafeteria. I used to call these signs of wear “love marks.”

Myers books were read, I believe, because they spoke to the students who picked them up. Many of these students would be described as “reluctant readers.” Their “reluctance” was mostly rooted in failure to find a book that spoke to them. Myers books spoke to them because they could find themselves in these books. For the young adult trying to battle towards a bit of independence and a sense of self, it is crucial that they find books where they find believable role models.

As Myers himself said in the Times essay:

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?  Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

And just as importantly, Myers went on, where are white children going to get their knowledge and their ideas of people of color without books that represent these people?

Myers essay was written in response to a report from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin that showed of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people. Apparently, the world of children’s literature has not come far enough in publishing books in which our minority children can find a home.

Walter Dean Myers did his part; it is now for others to remediate this inequity.