When we think about the most prolific and important Black writers of the last century, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Wright, Morrison, and Ellison come to mind. But there’s one writer who’s often overlooked, but whose name deserves to be counted among the greats: the late Walter Dean Myers.
Unlike most who fell in love with his stories at a young age, I was introduced to Myers’s books as an adult. At the time, I was in my first year as a teacher and was desperately searching for novels for my classroom library. Despite teaching Black and Brown teens in urban Los Angeles, the books my school had on hand contained people who looked nothing like my students.
Every day I’d counteract groans of “Reading is boring, Miss!” or “Why they ain’t got no Black people in these books?” with promises that I’d find something they’d love. After one particularly rough week of trying to cajole my students into reading, I happened upon Myers’s novel Monster, a book about a 16-year-old boy on trial for murder, and everything changed.
From the moment we cracked open the book, I watched my students’ eyes light up. Instead of reading about kids on farms or trapped in 18th century America, we were taken inside the juvenile justice system, the ’hood, and the mind of a complicated protagonist who felt eerily similar to many of my students who’d also cycled through the system. Instead of begging for something—anything—to do besides read, my students became obsessed with the book. Why? Because they finally saw themselves.
Myers himself had a similar awakening after reading the James Baldwin short story, “Sonny’s Blues.” “I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with Black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me,” Myers explained in a recent op-ed on the lack of diverse young adult books. “The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.”
Myers’s map didn’t look like that of his predecessors, who chose to dabble in fantasy worlds or pen books about innocent kids living in idyllic landscapes. Instead, the 76-year-old author chose to situate his stories in Harlem, writing grittier tales of love, loss, and tough choices.
In 145th Street Stories, Myers gives voice to often ignored residents who live in nearly every Black community in America: the boy too nervous to ask out his crush; the young girl whose dreams can predict the future; the neighborhood drug addict who’s more than just a junkie; the affable neighbor who just wants to have a good time while he’s still living.
In Fallen Angels, Myers takes readers into the trenches of the Vietnam War through the story of a Harlem teen who enlists in the army after his college plans fall through. And in Crystal, he relates the story of a beautiful girl who gets caught up in the fast-paced modeling world and is forced to decide if her new life is really what she wants.
In his lifetime, Myers authored over 100 books, each of which included characters who were varied and complicated, funny and flawed and Black—always Black. For Myers, humanizing inner city African-Americans through his literature was his life’s work. “I need to make them feel as if they are part of America’s dream,” he wrote in the New York Times. “That all the rhetoric is meant for them, and that they are wanted in this country.”
While many claim Black teens, particularly African-American boys, don’t read, Myers spent his life crafting stories that would not only keep them entertained, but validate their experience. And in a world that constantly tells young Black people our lives don’t matter and can be snuffed out on the way home from the store or listening to loud music, or asking for help, Myers’s work served as a reminder that their stories were important.
And it worked.
“Thousands of young people have come to me saying that they love my books for some reason or the other, but I strongly suspect that what they have found in my pages is the same thing I found in ‘Sonny’s Blues’,” he wrote. “They have been struck by the recognition of themselves in the story, a validation of their existence as human beings, an acknowledgment of their value by someone who understands who they are. It is the shock of recognition at its highest level.”
Walter Dean Myers was more than a writer who churned out more books than some read in a lifetime. He was an artist and a documentarian of urban Black life who wanted to make certain that African-Americans were always represented honestly, and wholly, between the page. He will be missed.