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Walter Dean Myers is one of modern literature’s premier authors of fiction for young adults. Two of his novels for teens, The Young Landlords (1979) and Motown and Didi: A Love Story (1984), have won the prestigious Coretta Scott King Award, and his text for the picture book Where Does the Day Go? (1969) received the Council on Interracial Books for Children Award in 1969.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Working-Class Child Takes Up the Pen
Walter Myers was born into an impoverished family on August 12, 1937 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and at age three was adopted by Herbert and Florence Dean, who settled in New York City’s Harlem district. Although he wrote poems and stories from his early teens onward, and won awards for them, his parents did not encourage his literary talents. ”I was from a family of laborers,” he remembers in an autobiographical essay in Something about the Author Autobiography Series, ”and the idea of writing stories or essays was far removed from their experience. Writing had no practical value for a Black child.” The dawning realization that his possibilities were limited by race and economic status embittered Myers as a teen. A youngster is not trained to want to be a gasoline station attendant or a clerk in some obscure office,” he states.
We are taught to want to be lawyers and doctors and accountants—these professions that are given value. When the compromise comes, as it does early in Harlem to many children, it comes hard.”
Myers admits that he was not ready to accept that compromise. Through high school, and a three-year enlistment in the army, he read avidly and wrote short stories. After his discharge from the service, he worked in a variety of positions, including mail clerk at the post office, interoffice messenger, and interviewer in a factory. None of these tasks pleased him, and when he began to publish poetry, stories, and articles in magazines, he cautiously started to consider a writing profession.
Myers won a contest, sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children, for his text of Where Does the Day Go? In that story, a group of children from several ethnic backgrounds discuss their ideas about night and day with a sensitive and wise black father during a long walk. Inspired by the success of his first attempt to write for young people, Myers turned his attention to producing more picture books. During the early 1970s, he published three: The Dancers (1972), The Dragon Takes a Wife (1972), and Fly, Jimmy, Fly! (1974). In more recent years, he has concentrated on longer works for older children and continues to write texts for picture books occasionally. In 1980 he released a fable set in India, The Golden Serpent, and in 1984, an animal adventure, Mr. Monkey and the Gotcha Bird.
A graduate of the City College of New York, Myers accepted a job as a senior trade book editor for the Bobbs-Merrill Publishing Company in New York in 1970, and worked there until 1977. His seven-year tenure taught him the book business from another viewpoint,” as he puts it in his autobiographical essay. Myers benefited from his experiences at Bobbs-Merrill, even though he was laid off during a restructuring program.
After the initial disillusionment about the artistic aspects of the job, I realized how foolish I had been in not learning, as a writer, more about the business aspects of my craft,” he concludes. Armed with the pragmatic knowledge of how the publishing industry works, Myers has supported himself by his writing alone since 1977.
By the time he left Bobbs-Merrill, Myers had already established a reputation as an able author of fiction for black children, based largely upon his highly successful novels for teens, such as Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff (1975) and Mojo and the Russians (1977). Central to the stories is the concept of close friendships, portrayed as a positive, nurturing influence. Myers followed these two upbeat novels with a serious one, It Ain’t All for Nothin’ (1978), the account of a boy caught in a web of parental abuse and conflicting values.
A Publishing Frenzy
One year after the publication of It Ain’t All for Nothin’, Myers published The Young Landlords (1979), a novel that focuses once again on the intensity of ghetto living. One summer, a group of young people form an Action Group designed to improve the community. Hoops (1981), Myers’s next novel, focuses on Lonnie Jackson, a recent high school graduate, whose life lacks direction until he gets an opportunity to play in a basketball tournament. In 1981, Myers also published his only young adult novel set in Africa. The Legend of Tarik tells of a young African boy who witnesses the cruel slaughter of his entire family by the dreaded El Muerte.
In addition to his novels, Myers has written two nonfiction works for young people, The World of Work: A Guide to Choosing a Career (1975) and Social Welfare (1976) , which examines the welfare system and suggests alternatives to it.
In 1980 Myers received the Coretta Scott King Award for The Young Landlords. During the course of his career, Myers’s focus has shifted from children’s picture books to novels for young adults. This shift is an important one, for by appealing to the consciousness of young adults, Myers is touching, perhaps, the most important element of society. As Myers states, ”If you choose to deal with my children then you must deal with them as whole people, and that means dealing with their blackness as well as their intellect.” The Coretta Scott King award for outstanding children’s literature was again awarded to Myers for the novel Fallen Angels (1988). His 2006 novel, Jazz, which his son Christopher illustrated, won the American Library Association Children’s Notable Book Award.
Works in Literary Context
Whether he is writing about the ghettos of New York, the remote countries of Africa, or social institutions, Myers captures the essence of the developing experiences of youth. His tone can be funny or serious, but his concern for young people is clearly demonstrated in the basic themes of each work. He is concerned with the development of youths, and his message is always the same: young people must face the reality of growing up and must persevere, knowing that they can succeed despite any odds they face. Furthermore, this positive message enables youths to discover what is important in life and to reject influences that could destroy them.
Responsibility and Choice
Myers strives to present characters for whom urban life is an uplifting experience, despite the potentially dangerous influences. In his first Coretta Scott King Award-winner, The Young Landlords, several teens learn responsibility when they are given a ghetto apartment building to manage. Lonnie Jackson, the protagonist of Hoops (1981), profits from the example of an older friend who has become involved with gamblers. Tippy, the protagonist of It Ain’t All for Nothin’, is a boy whose life reaches the crossroads from which he can travel in one of two directions. He can choose the values of his father, which would not improve his situation, or he can uphold the values of his God fearing grandmother with whom he had lived before her illness. After experiencing life with his father and becoming a participant in petty crimes, Tippy decides to reject his father’s world and to live with Mr. Roland, a man who befriended him in his moment of need. A poignant, sad book, It Ain’t All for Nothin’ reflects much of the pain and anguish of ghetto life. At the end of the novel, Tippy turns his father in to the police.
Concerned with stereotyping of a sexual as well as a racial sort, Myers creates plausible female characters and features platonic friendships between the sexes in his works. ”The love in East Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff is not between any one couple,” writes Alleen Pace Nilsen. ”Instead it is a sort of general feeling of good will and concern that exists among a group of inner city kids.” Nilsen, among others, also notes that Myers’s fiction can appeal to readers of any race. She concludes that he ”makes the reader feel so close to the characters that ethnic group identification is secondary.”
Works in Critical Context
Myers has received consistent praise for the realism of his depiction of disadvantaged youth, his knack for capturing the language and dialogue of teenagers, and for his engaging prose. Critics have identified the skill with which his narratives reveal the inner resources that enable young adults to navigate difficult situations and relationships.
Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff
In 1975, Myers published the first in a series of novels for young adults. East Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff, set in the neighborhood of 116th Street in New York City, tells of a group of preteen youths growing up in an adverse environment, yet making the most of their situation. This novel proved to be Myers’s springboard into young adult literature. In his School Library Journal review, John F. Caviston commented that the novel is ”alternately funny, sad, and sentimental, but it is always very natural and appealing.” Booklist described the narrative as ”engrossing and infused with dramatic impact,” and Horn Book asserted that the novel has not only ”the flavor of a Harlem Tom Sawyer or Penrod” but also ”the merit of being swift in narrative and natural and vivid in dialogue.”
It Ain’t All for Nothin’
Myers’s third novel has more serious implications. Jane Pennington praised the novel in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin as a ”devastating book… one which needs to be written. … Not only does it delineate the sufferings of [the main character], it also details the caring and support offered to him by members of the community.” It Ain’t All for Nothin’ ”pretties up nothing; not the language, not the circumstances, not the despair,” according to Pennington.
- Bishop, Rudine Sims. Presenting Walter Dean Myers. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
- Patrick-Wexler, Diane. Walter Dean Myers. Austin: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1995.
- Rush, Theresa G., ed. Black American Writers: Past and Present. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1975. Brown, Jennifer M. ”Walter Dean Myers Unites Two Passions.” Publishers Weekly (March 22,1999): 45.
- Caviston, John, review of Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff. School Library Journal 21 (March 1975): 108.
- Corbett, Sue. ”Walter Dean Myers Has Been Writing Poignant, Tough Stories For and About At-Risk Kids.” Knight Bidder/Tribune News Service (January 26, 2000): K6508.
- Higgins, Jim. ”Former ‘Bad Boy’ Taps into Youths’ Minds, Struggles.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (May 26, 2002): 1.
- McElmeel, Sharron L. ”A Profile: Walter Dean Myers.” Book Report (September-October 2001): 42.
- Nilsen, Alleen Pace, ”Love and the Teeenage Reader.” English Journal (March 1976): 90-92.
- Pennington, Jane, review of It Ain’t All for Nothin’. Interracial Books for Children Bulletin 10 (1979): 18.
- Smith, Amanda. ”Walter Dean Myers: This Award-Winning Author for Young People Tells It Like It Is.” Publishers Weekly (July 20, 1992): 217.
- Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 2, Gale, 1986.
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