Like everyone I was shocked and saddened by the announcement that author Walter Dean Myers had recently passed away. The first National Ambassador of Children’s Literature to leave us, there is little to say about his life that hasn’t been said by others far more eloquently than I in the last 24 hours. However, I think it’s important to take into account the context in which the man lived. Because we haven’t just lost a great author. We’ve lost a man that filled a very great need in our children’s literary landscape. A need that is being filled, albeit slowly.
Walter died in the same year that the #WeNeedDiverseBooks trend occurred. That movement began, in large part, thanks to an article he’d written for The New York Times called Where Are the People of Color In Children’s Books? The lack of diversity in our children’s literature became a topic of conversation outside our little sphere thanks to him.
Now when I wrote my post 2013 Middle Grade Black Boys: Seriously, People? I took care to mention his Cruisers series, of course, but I also said, “it appears that unless you’re writing about history, you’re Walter Dean Myers, or you’re a basketball star / former basketball star, you simply cannot get a middle grade book about black boys out there.” Happily 2014 is another case altogether. I’ve seen a marked increase not just in books starring African-American kids but in titles written by authors of color as well.
Because that was one of my first thoughts when I heard of his death. With Walter’s death there is a great gaping hole in our universe. Who’s going to write about and visit the boys in juvenile detention? Who’s going to tackle the tough subjects and not flinch when it may not be the most popular topic of all time? Here in New York his Scorpions and Bad Boy: A Memoir are on loads of summer reading lists. Why is he the only African-American man to be listed for older readers?
And yet, I have high hopes. African-American men are writing more YA and children’s literature than before and, thankfully, publishers are publishing them. So, on the male side of the equation, this year we’re seeing Varian Johnson, Jason Reynolds, Greg Neri, Kwame Alexander, Patrick Henry Bass, and hopefully others as well. No one will ever be able to fill Walter’s shoes but maybe his legacy can be markedly increased representation.
I did not have many chances to speak with Walter. I was horribly intimidated by him in general, so I never quite knew what to say in his presence. Aside from the occasional interview we didn’t interact much. Still, he was incredibly memorable as a person. We’ll all remember Walter in our different ways. For my part, I think I’ll go reread Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. To my mind, no other book of children’s literature gives Walter his due better than that slim little title.