RIP Walter Dean Myers

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RIP Walter Dean Myers, 1937-2014

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

–From a March, 2014 piece Myers published in The New York Times entitled “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”

I taught for seven years in an inner city high school. I cannot overstate how important Myers’s books were to my students. His novel Monster—a classic—was one of the first books I wrote about on Biblioklept. I love the book, and I loved reading it with my students. Monster was an especially effective bridge to others by Myers–Slam!, HoopsBad BoyThe Beast—and one of my favorites, Fallen Angels—but I also saw it turn kids who hated reading into voracious readers. I read Myers myself as a young teen (his book Scorpions is especially good), but reading them again with my students revealed a depth and precision I hadn’t detected as a kid. Those books are all true, even the ones that are made up. RIP Walter Dean Myers.

Monster–Walter Dean Myers

In Walter Dean Myer’s Monster, sixteen year-old Steve Harmon is on trial for felony murder in New York City. He participated in a robbery that went bad when the store owner was killed with his own gun. Only Steve wasn’t in the store at the time of the robbery/murder–he was playing the role of the lookout. In fact, he didn’t even send a signal of any kind, he just walked out of the store. Before he wound up in jail, Steve attended Stuyvesant High School, where he excelled in his film class. Steve, a sensitive kid from a stable home, despises the violence and cruelty of jail and feels utterly alienated from the reality of his trial. To avoid the intensity of his situation, he writes a diary where he records his feeling. These handwritten passages introspectively contextualize the rest of the narrative, which is composed of Steve’s screenplay of the events of the trial.

Walter Dean Myers (Scorpions, Fallen Angels) is one of the founding writers of the YA movement that emerged in the early seventies (other writers include S.E. Hinton, Robert Cormier, and Judy Blume), and Monster is written to appeal to high school kids. Although Myers always has his teen audience in mind, he never talks down to them, and even though Monster features a discussion of some “edgy” content (uh…prison rape) it’s always purposeful to the narrative and never lurid or used for the sake of crude shock value. I’ve used this novel in my 10th grade classroom for a few years now and it’s always a big hit (this year we’re reading it in conjunction with Antigone and a viewing of Lumet’s 12 Angry Men). The students generally love it–they get to read the parts in Steve’s film–and it provides a fantastic platform to discuss a number of relevant issues, including justice, prejudice, guilt and innocence, and how we perceive (and sometimes dehumanize) others. At the heart of the novel is Steve’s inward battle to see himself as human and resist the gaze of the prosecutor, jury, and judge, as well as his attempt to escape the way that jail will shape his personality. This psychological/ethical/perceptual dilemma dominates the novel and Myers is content to let moments of irresolution stand in place of easy, platitudinous answers or dogmatic moralizing. This is a great novel for the classroom, but I think adult readers would also enjoy it. Highly recommended.