“As a writer, I absorb stories, allow them to churn within my own head and heart — often for years — until I find a way of telling them that fits both my time and temperament.” — Walter Dean Myers
I am still reeling over the loss of this caring, smart, funny, determined and very accomplished man — the kind of man who responds to a boy who wants to write a book with him, and does just that (Kick), the kind of man of goes into prisons to talk with young people there, not just talk about the glaring lopsidedness of poor and minority kids in prison, the kind of man who is gracious and thoughtful, hoping to catch a cup of coffee sometime or discuss writing with me over email (while I took breaks between emails to hop-skip around the house, shouting, “Walter Dean Myers emailed me! Walter Dean Myers emailed me!” and then sat back down again to try act like a grownup), the kind of man who never acted impressed with himself, although he had every reason to. He’s such a famous author, there’s even fiction that includes him as key character (Love that Dog by Sharon Creech).
He didn’t just contribute to the body of literature — and a critical contribution since his work tended to focus on (often ignored) minorities and their families and neighborhoods — but to the body and soul of who we are. As National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature his motto was “Reading is not optional.” It’s not optional because reading is power. Reading puts us on a higher level. Reading anything — the directions on a household cleaner, a prescription bottle, a job application — can have serious implications for one’s individual future. And, as a society, who will we become if we don’t forge those neural pathways that lead to reading, which includes distinguishing shapes, translating shapes into sounds, and shapes and sounds into meaning and understanding? There is no video game or even audio book that will substitute for that brain training. Don’t let a kid tell you that reading isn’t important, isn’t worth it, isn’t necessary, or is too much effort. Tell him that if a kid from the Bronx with a speech impediment who carried books in a paper bag so no one would see he wasn’t “cool,” can read, he can, too. He or she might even become a writer, and write over a hundred books in a variety of genres, and maybe become the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. But most importantly, they will learn to think and feel, to empathize, to experience the wider world, leading to understanding of others and themselves. Reading will bring them a sense of humanity and humility, something we should all strive for so the world can have more Walters.
Authors, editors, book sellers, and book buyers will, I hope, strive to continue his calling. He wrote, most recently in a New York Times editorial this year, about the need for minority kids to see themselves in literature, recalling what James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” did for him. He said, “I’ve reached an age at which I find myself not only examining and weighing my life’s work, but thinking about how I will pass the baton so that those things I find important will continue.”
Thank you, Walter, for all you’ve done for us. You have long strides for us to emulate and try follow. But we will. Because it’s not optional. And, as you said, “There is work to be done.”