Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 640
Walter Milton Myers was born in West Virginia but spent most of his childhood and teen years in the Harlem section of New York City. His mother, Mary Meyers, died giving birth when he was two years old. The sixth of seven children, he was fostered to the Harlem home of his father’s first wife, Florence Dean, and her second husband, Herbert. Myers considers the Deans to be his true parents and writes under the name Walter Dean Myers to honor them. He used the concept of surrogate parenting in his novels Me, Mop, and the Moondance Kid and Won’t Know Till I Get There.
Myers learned to read when he was four from his foster mother’s True Romance magazines and classic comics. He began writing poetry when he was in the fifth grade and continued writing poetry and prose during his junior high and high school years. He dates his love of reading from the time his fifth-grade teacher caught him reading a comic book during class and gave him East of the Sun and West of the Moon, a collection of Norwegian folk tales. His life outside school centered on his church, which had a gym in the basement that became a model for the church gym in Hoops. His novels Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff; Mojo and the Russians; and The Young Landlords describe the Harlem of his childhood.
As a teenager, Myers became a petty criminal, as he reveals in Bad Boy, his autobiography, and used an incident in which he interfered in a gang fight in Motown and Didi. In 1954 he joined the Army after failing to graduate from high school and only a few weeks before the police came to his house to arrest him. His Army experience provided him with background information for his Vietnam novel Fallen Angels. After his discharge, he held several low paying jobs, including working at the post office, where he met his first wife. He used that experience in The Dragon Takes a Wife. During this time, Myers became a professional writer and wrote articles and stories for the magazines The Liberator, Black Digest, The Black Scholar, Ebony, Black World, Black Creation, Blue Book, Male, Argosy, Cavalier, and Essence and the tabloids The National Enquirer and The Star. His short story “The Fare to Crown Point” appeared in the anthology What We Must See: Young Black Story-tellers.
Myers broke into children’s literature in 1969 when he won a contest run by the Council on Interracial Books for Children with his story Where Does the Day Go? In 1970, he became an editor with the Bobbs-Merrill Company. After the publisher laid him off in 1977, he used his severance pay to make the transition to full-time author. Since then he has supported himself and his family by writing. Although he never graduated from high school, he received a bachelor’s degree from Empire State College in 1984.
Richard Perry in Fallen Angels is Myers’s most autobiographical character. Not only did Perry grow up in New York, like Myers, but he attended Stuyvesant High School as well. Both had already developed ambitions to write when they joined the Army at age seventeen and were stationed at Fort Devens, where they both played basketball. The difference is that Myers never saw combat and went from Fort Devens to a base in the Arctic, while Perry joined an infantry platoon in Vietnam.
Myers has won the Coretta Scott King Award and the Newbery Medal. Five of his books have been chosen as the American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and two others have been named American Library Association Notable Books. In 1994 he received the Margaret A. Edwards Award, a lifetime achievement award for writing, and the ALAN Award for his contribution to the field of young adult literature.
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