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Remembering Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers (courtesy Flickr user Madeline Brownstone)

We are saddened to learn of the death of beloved children’s book author Walter Dean Myers, who wrote so many important and life-changing books for America’s youth, including Bad Boy, Monster, Darius & Twig, Lockdown, and Autobiography of My Dead Brother. He also was a friend to the house, having contributed a wonderful introduction to A Time to Break Silence: The Essential Works of Martin Luther King, Jr. for Students. In that introduction, Myers, who was born in West Virginia but raised in Harlem, wrote about being a young soldier traveling to Louisiana and experiencing segregation there for the first time:

When I arrived in Louisiana, when I saw what institutionalized racism was, I was shocked. Restaurant signs read “Whites Only” or “Colored Served in Rear.” Some stores wouldn’t serve black people, and there were movie houses in which they were made to sit in the balcony or, in some cases, not even permitted to enter.... The signs did more than make me feel uncomfortable; they made me feel sick. I was being told that I wasn’t as good as some people simply because of the color of my skin. And yet I was in the military, ready and willing to sacrifice my life for this country.

Late in his life, he spoke out passionately against another kind of segregation: the absence of people of color in children’s books. In a recent essay for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, he reported that, out of the 3,200 children’s books that were published in 2013, only 93 were about black people. He questioned what impression of the world future generations would take from such an imbalance, writing, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

Beacon executive editor Gayatri Patrick, who worked with Myers on his introduction to A Time to Break Silence, reflected on that legacy of “common humanity” that Myers leaves behind. “Like many others,” she said, “I had known Myers by reputation and through his many award-winning books but was unprepared for his openness, warmth and generosity of spirit which I realized later were hallmarks of his personality. When Joanna Green and I met with teachers in New York several years ago and asked who they thought should introduce our anthology by Dr. King for high school students, it was striking—though perhaps not surprising—that Walter Dean Myers was literally the first name on everyone’s list.”

We join the world in mourning the loss of his vision and his voice.