Ferocious. If you had to ask me for a single word to describe Walter Dean Myers, that would be it: ferocious. Many who knew Walter might find that unlikely, even bizarre. Walter was a soft-spoken man and a witty one—certainly not one given to intemperate speech. But the first time I met him, I was struck by his ferocity.
I was seated next to Walter at a luncheon; he was accepting a Boston Globe–Horn Book honor award for 145th Street, a collection of short stories set in his beloved Harlem (his speech was a haiku, as I recall). During our conversation, he decried the tendency of librarians like me to promote reading as a vehicle to travel to distant lands and encounter magical beings. “Reading is survival,” he insisted, pointing out that it’s no coincidence that one of the greatest crimes that could be committed in the antebellum South was teaching a slave to read. To be literate as a slave was literally a matter of life or death. Perhaps not the legal emancipation of a people but its intellectual one, reading, he argued, was a far more serious enterprise than simply a celebration of the imagination.
In his memoir, Bad Boy, and elsewhere, Walter wrote that reading was a matter of personal survival as well, and he took refuge in books as an alternative to mischief and violence. A high school dropout, he nevertheless continued his education as an autodidact, reading far and wide and becoming one of the most respected writers for children of his generation. As our third National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, he channeled that ferocity into his service, adopting the slogan “Reading is not optional.”
Could we describe Walter’s recent New York Times op-ed as anything other than ferocious? “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” he demanded, a cri de coeur from a man whose first children’s book was published in 1969 after winning a contest for minority writers. For the next 45 years he wrote prolifically, doing his best to populate literature for children and teenagers with characters of color and inspiring other writers, including writers of color, to do the same.
A literary polymath, Walter wrote works of gritty contemporary realism (his Newbery Honor book, The Scorpions, and the more recent Darius & Twig, among many more) and more lighthearted works (the Little League romp Me, Mop, and the Moondance Kid and the middle school journalism quartet he began with The Cruisers). He wrote historical fiction (the heartbreaking Vietnam saga Fallen Angels and its D-Day–set prequel, Invasion, among others), history (Antarctica, a chronicle of South Pole exploration, and Now Is Your Time, a classic work of African-American history) and biography (At Her Majesty’s Request, the account of a young African princess who became Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, and The Greatest, the life of Muhammad Ali). He wrote picture books (the joyous Harlem, illustrated by his son Christopher Myers, the first of many collaborations, and the unsettling Patrol, illustrated by Ann Grifalconi) and poetry (Blues Journey, also illustrated by Christopher Myers, and Here in Harlem, possibly my favorite of his books). His experimental, script-based novel Monster, once again illustrated by Christopher Myers, won the inaugural Printz Award in 2000.
With these and many, many more books, Walter put his stamp on the last five decades of literature for children and teens, as well as those to come. Waves of sadness have washed over our world since the news of his death on July 1, 2014. It’s a world that looks significantly different than it did in 1969, and for that we have Walter Dean Myers to thank in no small part. That it does not look different enough, as he so eloquently lamented in the New York Times, just means that we need to continue his work. Walter may be gone, but his books and, more to the point, his ferocity have not.
Vicky Smith is the children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.