I can remember a time, barely more than a decade ago, where the Young Adult market was full of only books about dead dogs from the 1970s. Or the best my students could read of urban life was trying to understand 1960s jargon in The Outsiders… drive-ins were nowhere in site in the Bronx, you see.
That was until Walter Dean Myers.
Scorpions, Slam!, and Monster became required reading. Not because I required them, because my students couldn’t help but pass them around. Walter Dean Myers sat, at least as far as I can tell, at the cusp of what, thankfully, has become an explosion of thoughtful, well written, deeply introspective, Young Adult writing that is aimed at real kids, with real feelings, and respects their real humanity.
One of my favorite’s is Somewhere in the Darkness. Myers’ book about a son reuniting with his recently-out-of-prison father and the cross-country trip they take together. It’s human, dark, and heart wrenching.
I actually teared up at the news of Walter Dean Myers’ passing. Not only for the loss the literary world must now face, but at the enormity of his gift to children and classrooms. I also feel personally indebted. His work has helped me be a better teacher.
I recall, when I was teaching high school, sitting down next to a tough-as-nails ninth grade girl who wore her attitude as armor over the embarrassment I know she felt for having such a poor academic record. She had written only the little bit, about three paragraphs of what was supposed to be a short story. She hrumphed next to me as I reread some of the lines and the first thing that popped into my mind was: “Do you know who you write dialogue like? Walter Dean Myers. He has that way of making people sound so real. People spend their lives studying how to write dialogue well, how to make movie scripts sound realistic and novels authentic. The dialogue you wrote here sounds much the same way. It’s real people, really talking. You aren’t hiding them, you aren’t faking them, you are writing as if they are in this room.” We ended that conference and she spent the rest of the period writing without lifting her head.
It’s one of my fondest memories from the classroom, and, as with many of my memories, Walter Dean Myers’ work played a starring role.
While the Young Adult industry has a long way to go to realize a breadth of fully inclusive characters, plots, and authors, our classrooms are still much closer to reflecting a multitude of lives and experiences than ever before. Walter Dean Myers has been a cornerstone of this new world. A prolific author. A quiet visionary.
With condolences to his family, friends, and readers — and overwhelming gratitude.