Like many of the protagonists in his dozens of young adult books, Walter Dean Myers was once a troubled, sensitive and intelligent young man living an aimless life.
A writer’s heart beat in his chest, the passion for words there even as he stumbled through a childhood in the 1940s and ’50s scarred by a broken family and an angry Harlem upbringing.
“I didn’t know I was going to be a writer,” he said in an interview with readers of Scholastic Books after his book “Scorpions” was published in 1988. “In fact, I didn’t know that there was such a job as an author. No one really encouraged me to write, it was just something I loved to do.”
Myers, 76, died Tuesday at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York after a brief illness, said his publisher, HarperCollins.
He became a writer almost by accident. Long after he dropped out of high school, completed a stint in the Army and worked in a series of low-wage jobs, he won a writing contest. His story “Where Does the Day Go?” became his first book.
Eventually, unsettled young characters became Myers’ trademark. He imagined them in all sorts of adventures, facing impossible difficulties. Collectively, his characters worked their way through the turbulent history of the 20th century, with its rampant injustices, especially against African-Americans.
Later in his life, as the 21st century dawned, it hurt Myers that characters like his were still so scarce in literature for young adults. In 2013, according to one study, only 93 of the 3,200 children’s books published in the U.S. were about black people. Myers believed that the invisibility of people of color in literature discouraged kids from reading.
To the argument that there simply isn’t a market for young adult books about black people, Myers replied in a public radio interview that publishers were “shunting off thousands and thousands of children” and contributing to “a graduation rate through this country which is obscene.”
In one of his most popular – and controversial – books, he took on the Vietnam War. Its unflinching depiction of warfare made “Fallen Angels” (1988) one of the most challenged books of its day.
But in writing about the Vietnam War from the perspective of a young black man, Myers made that war, and other seemingly distant events, accessible to a wider readership. Broadening the audience for literature was always his intention, he said. He wrote the books that he himself had wanted to read, but never found, when he was an adolescent and teenager.
Myers, who wrote more than 100 books, credited his foster father for instilling in him a work ethic. “What I really have is the discipline to work all the time,” he said.