Before he died on Wednesday at the age of 76, Walter Dean Myers built a lifetime and a career writing books about the hardships of black youth.
Before President Obama’s controversial initiative targeting young black men there was Myers, with works like “Monster,” “Fallen Angels” and “Hoops.” “Monster,” which was published in 1999, was a heartbreaking drama centered on a young black man standing trial for murder in New York City. Myers “often wrote books about the most difficult time in his own life — his teenage years — for the reader he once was; these were the books that he wished were available when he was that age,” according to HarperCollins.
In describing his love of reading, Myers said, “Reading pushed me to discover worlds beyond my landscape, especially during dark times when my uncle was murdered and my family became dysfunctional with alcohol and grief.”
But if Myers blazed a path in storytelling about black youth, it was was a lonely one. Last March, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times’ Sunday Review of Books lamenting the lack of people of color in children’s books:
I’ve reached an age at which I find myself not only examining and weighing my life’s work, but thinking about how I will pass the baton so that those things I find important will continue. In 1969, when I first entered the world of writing children’s literature, the field was nearly empty. Children of color were not represented, nor were children from the lower economic classes. Today, when about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino, the disparity of representation is even more egregious. In the middle of the night I ask myself if anyone really cares.
Myers’ observation was backed up by statistics. According to researchers at the University of Wisconsin, of 3,200 children’s books published last year, only 93 were about black people. Myers did pass the baton to his son Christopher, who illustrates children’s books and wrote in a follow-up op-ed at the Times about the salient impact of so few books that reflect the realities facing black children, calling it “the apartheid of children’s literature:”
One [effect] is a gap in the much-written-about sense of self-love that comes from recognizing oneself in a text, from the understanding that your life and lives of people like you are worthy of being told, thought about, discussed and even celebrated. Academics and educators talk about self-esteem and self-worth when they think of books in this way, as mirrors that affirm readers’ own identities. I believe that this is important, but I wonder if this idea is too adult and self-concerned, imagining young readers as legions of wicked queens asking magic mirrors to affirm that they are indeed “the fairest of them all.”
Today, there are artists whose work is undoubtedly influenced by Myers. “Myers inspired generations of readers, including a 12-year-old me when I read ‘Fallen Angels,’ and then a 22-year-old me when I read ‘Monster,’” John Green, author of the bestselling “The Fault in Our Stars,” wrote on Twitter. “It’s hard to imagine YA literature without him.”
As for what’s ahead, Myers wrote in the Times: “There is work to be done.”