Friday, July 4, 2014

Russ on Reading: Walter Dean Myers: An Appreciation

Russ on Reading: Walter Dean Myers: An Appreciation:

Walter Dean Myers: An Appreciation

I was saddened to learn of the passing of the great young adult author, Walter Dean Myers. Myers was an important presence on my classroom bookshelves. His books spoke to a segment of my students who found very few voices they could relate to in literature. He wrote of poor African American kids on the streets of Harlem. Myers was acutely aware of the need for these children to see themselves in the pages of books.

I had the pleasure of meeting Myers on one memorable occasion. I was struck by his large physical presence and gentle manner. He was acutely aware of the great responsibility any author of young adult literature carried and he was determined to meet that responsibility with books that were of high quality and which transmitted values for young people to emulate.

Myers was intensely proud of maintaining his residence in Jersey City, New Jersey. He said he could see the children he was writing about walk past his window as he worked in his home.

As a young man Myers was an avid reader, but as he grew through his teenage years he realized that the books he was reading had little to say about young people of color like him. He grew resentful. He stopped reading and dropped out of school. Reading James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” turned things around. Myers found that “by humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me.”

Myers says that after reading Baldwin he discovered his mission in life. As he said in a March 2014 essay he wrote for the New York Times:

I realized that this was exactly what I wanted to do when I wrote about poor inner-city children — to make them human in the eyes of readers and, especially, in their own eyes. I need to make them feel as if they are part of America’s dream, that all the rhetoric is meant for them, and that they are wanted in this country.

For many of the students in my classrooms in the 1980s and for surely Russ on Reading: Walter Dean Myers: An Appreciation: