He could have been a statistic.
He could have been just another young black man who didn't make it.
Instead, Walter Dean Myers took the poverty of his youth, the dysfunctional home in which he was raised, his coming of age in Harlem, his dropping out (twice) from high school and his experience after joining the Army at age 17, and he wrote stories.
He wrote magazine articles and children's books and so many novels it's hard to find an accurate count. He won critical acclaim for novels including “Fallen Angels” and “Monster.”
And Myers began racking up statistics of his own. He is a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award, a three-time National Book Award finalist, a two-time Newbery honoree.
He has racked up other honors and distinctions, including being a National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, sponsored by the Library of Congress and the Children's Book Council.
It is this latest distinction that brings Myers, age 76, to Omaha today to talk about books and writing and issues that children face. You can meet him at a public reception at Joslyn Art Museum at 5:30 p.m. and stay to listen to his talk at 6:30 p.m. If you get there early enough, you may receive one of his signed novels.
This is free, an early Christmas present from the Omaha Public Library and a literacy nonprofit called Every Child a Reader. The library, through a national grant, has brought Myers especially for a teenage and young adult audience.
“It's a fascinating experience to meet someone whose work you've loved and read,” said Gary Wasdin, library director. “It's so great for (young people) to see how an author's personal life is reflected in their writing and how their writing is a creative outlet.”
How Myers went from dropout to bestselling author is a story that involves talent, drive and the faith of other adults who saw promise in him.
Born in West Virginia, Myers was raised in Harlem by foster parents who battled demons of their own. His foster mother was an alcoholic. His foster father never overcame the grief and shock after a relative was murdered.
Young Walter would escape by playing basketball and going to the library. Among his peers, basketball was OK. Books were not. So Walter would sneak them home in a brown paper bag. In private, he would read and read and read and read.
“I found solace in books. I found other worlds,” he said. “It was a difference maker.”
An English teacher gave him a book by French author Balzac.
“I said, 'Oh, my God,' ” Myers said. “If someone can write this well, and tell this strong a story — it just moved me so much.”
But desire was no match for what Walter viewed as the inevitability of his situation. College was a laugh given his disaster of a home life. And if he wasn't going to college, why finish high school?
His English teacher gave him some important parting words before he dropped out.
“Walter,” she had said, “whatever you do, continue writing.”
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
After the Army, after coming home to work construction, after feeling lousy about his prospects, Myers remembered what his teacher said and figured he had nothing to lose.
He wrote and wrote and wrote and got rejected and rejected and rejected.
“But it didn't matter to me,” he said. “I enjoyed the process of writing. I remember getting a rejection and some editor had written, 'Sorry, this came close,' on it, and I was elated for weeks.”
He made $300 in one year off articles that were published and asked his wife if he could call himself a writer. She humored him and said yes.
Then came a series of events: an article in 1967 that complained about the all-white world of children's literature, the formation of a group called the Council of Interracial Books for Children, the contest for black writers.
Myers entered. He won. And his first book, “Where Does the Day Go?” was published in 1969. He realized he could write books and after that came more than 110 books and more accolades.
Myers started hanging out at juvenile detention centers and paying attention to troubled youths and writing for them.
He started writing nonfiction and currently is working on a self-help book for inner-city teenagers who might think, as he once did, that their lives hold no promise.
He is prolific, the result of being a disciplined, regimented student. Myers rises at 5 in the morning. He reads for three hours. He then spends the next four to five hours writing at least five pages — he decided long ago he'd rather write five good pages than 30 not-as-good pages that would require rewriting and more work. Afternoons are spent preparing outlines. He tries to take weekends off “to be normal.”
Myers, who lives in Jersey City, N.J., writes wherever he goes, including London, where he and his wife live for five weeks each year “because we can.”
Myers writes about 1,200 pages a year — and not all of those pages are for publication. He loves to write so much that he writes for himself.
While he is in Omaha, Myers will be visiting the Douglas County Youth Detention Center. He makes such visits to gather material and to inspire hope. He wants these youths to see that if he could live a productive, happy life, then they have a shot, too.
They can follow their dreams and become the kind of statistic Walter Dean Myers is.