Thursday, July 3, 2014

"Reading Is Not Optional"

With the death of Walter Dean Myers earlier this week, we lost a beloved and hugely influential author for children and teens. Walter, who wrote the books he wish he could have read as a child and teen, was one of the earliest and most powerful voices calling for more diversity in children's literature. With more than 100 books to his credit (and sales of 15 million copies), Walter used his remarkable writing talent to create some of that needed diversity, and he profoundly influenced several generations of young readers and writers. His books included: Monster, a look at a teen charged with murder that won the first Michael Printz Award (given to the best-written teen book of the year) in 2000; Fallen Angels, a novel of the Vietnam War, which is often challenged for its language and realism; Amiri & Odette, a hip-hop version of Swan Lake; The Cruisers series; and Bad Boy, his memoir of growing up in Harlem.

More about Walter and his impact on the world of children's and teen literature can be gleaned from these obituaries in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and School Library Journal, among many others. These articles all capture Walter's essence, including his insistence that "reading is not optional," which was a theme of his just-concluded two-year term as the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.
And Walter continued to fight for more diversity in children's books -- an issue that has proved stubbornly resistant to change. Walter published an essay about the ongoing challenge earlier this year in The New York Times; the headline for his essay asked: "Where Are the People of Color in Children's Literature?"

 Walter's son, Christopher Myers,  joined him in the effort, publishing a companion essay in the Times with the even-more-hard-hitting title, "The Apartheid of Children's Literature." In fact, Christopher and his dad worked quite a bit together, with Walter as the writer and Christopher as the artist on such beautiful books as Harlem, Blues Journey, and Jazz.

One of their most recent efforts was We Are America. I was fortunate to interview both Walter and Christopher (separately, in phone interviews) about that book; in the article, I was able to give a glimpse into their working relationship, and the close bond between them. Walter's death is a loss for us all, but especially for his family. RIP, Walter Dean Myers.

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