Spotlight on Walter Dean Myers

Award Winning Young Adult Author

Photo courtesy of Malin Fezehai

When Walter Dean Myers was born:

August 12, 1937 in Martinsburg, West Virginia

When Walter Dean Myers Died:

July 1, 2014 (HarperCollins Announcement)

Walter Dean Myers Background:

Myers was born Walter Milton Myers. After his mother died, he was sent by his father, George, to live with Florence, his first wife, and her husband, Herbert Dean. In later years Myers changed his middle name to Dean to honor the people who raised him.

Myers grew up in Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s. He loved to play basketball and dreamed of someday being a professional ball player. He attended school and found he enjoyed writing, but often got in trouble and didn’t complete his work. As an adult, he still remembered the school teacher who took notice of his writing and told him, “It’s what you do.” 

Myers dropped out of school at 17 to join the military. He served in the army for three years then came home to work various low-paying jobs. In 1969 he entered a story in a writing contest and his winning entry was turned into the picture book Where Does the Day Go? In 1975 he wrote his first book for teens called Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff. Myers found he enjoyed writing for teens. By 1977 he started to work as a full time writer and went on to write more than 80 books. 

On January 3, 2012, Walter Dean Myers was named the 2012-2013 National Ambassador for Young People's Literature by Librarian of Congress James H.

Billington. “Walter Dean Myers is one of America’s preeminent authors of books for young people,” said Billington. “He is a lifelong advocate for reading for young people, and he has practiced what he preaches in schools and detention centers across the country.” A strong literacy advocate, Myers adopted the slogan "Reading is not an option" and promoted the importance of reading as he traveled across the country.

Walter Dean Myers and his wife lived in Jersey City, New Jersey. In addition to his wife, Myers is survived by his sons Christopher and Michael Dean. His daughter Karen predeceased him.

(Sources: Walter Dean Myers website and Notable Biographies)

Walter Dean Myers Books and Censorship:

For more than forty years, Myers wrote fiction. In addition, he also wrote poetry, history, a memoir, biographies, plays, and picture books. He has also worked on writing projects with his son Christopher Myers, an artist. Their collaborations included the picture books We Are America: A Tribute from the Heart, Harlem and Looking Like Me.

Myers's teen books focus on serious issues that face African American youth who live in inner cities. Myers felt he understood these teens based on his own growing up experiences. When asked why he wrote for teens, Myers responded: "The young adult and middle grade periods of my life were so vivid and, in looking back, so influential in how I would live the rest of my life, that I am drawn to [them] over and over again." (Source: Houghton Mifflin Reading)

Because Myers wrote about realistic issues, such as war, bullying, poverty, and drugs, several of his books have been challenged.

Reasons cited for these challenges have included "vulgar language," "graphic violence" and "sexual explicitness." (Source: American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression). According to the American Library Association, Myers’ book Fallen Angels is listed as one of the top books challenged in the last 20 years because of graphic war imagery and excessive language (Source: American Library Association).

For more about challenges to Myers's books and his views on censorship, see my article Walter Dean Myers on Censorship.

Major Works by Myers:

Major works by Walter Dean Myers include: Fallen Angels, Monster, and Shooter, among many others. Fallen Angels is a story about the Vietnam War and can be found listed as a standard book taught in many junior high and high school English classrooms.

Here is a sample of a teacher's study guide for Fallen Angels and the companion novel Sunrise Over Fallujah from Scholastic. See Walter Dean Myers's website for a complete bibliography of his works.

Walter Dean Myers Awards:

In four decades of writing Walter Dean Myers swept up many youth literary awards including: five Coretta Scott King Awards, four Coretta Scott King Honor Awards and the first Michael L. Printz Award. He was a two-time Newbery honoree, a two-time National Book Award finalist, and a five-time Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor recipient.  Myers received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for “lifetime contribution to young adult literature” in 1994. He is also the first recipient of the Coretta Scott-King Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement award which recognizes an African American author/illustrator for significant literary contributions to children and young adults. (Sources: Walter Dean Myers Web site, American Library Association Web site)

Walter Dean Myers Movies:

In February 2011, Myers book Shooter was adapted into a short movie called Case 219.  During an interview, director James Bruce revealed that his teen son had read the book and told his dad he should make a movie. Bruce agreed. The movie is an independent film. (Source: Shadow and Act)

Walter Dean Myers Online:

Learn more about Walter Dean Myers by reading Walter Dean Myers: His Life, Books, and Views on Censorship and visiting the official Walter Dean Myers website.

Walter Dean Myers Trivia:

  •  In 2007 Myers received an email from a 13 year old fan named Ross Workman and they began a friendly correspondence. Myers suggested they write a book together and in 2011 HarperCollins published their book Kick.
  • Myers wrote the book Fallen Angels in memory of his younger brother who died in the Vietnam War.
  • As a youth, Myers had a severe speech impediment and was teased by other students.

(Source: Huffington Post)

Updated by Elizabeth Kennedy on July 2, 2014, with added information from HarperCollins.