Thursday, July 3, 2014

In Memoriam: Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers, who wrote books for children about the brute reality of war and life as a troubled black kid in rough neighborhoods, died Tuesday at 76. I never met Myers, who lived in Jersey City, but I was drawn like a magnet to one of his books—Patrol: An American Soldier in Vietnam—that a fellow vet brought to my attention recently.

Myers’ crisp, curt prose poetry and stunning illustrations of jungle warfare by Ann Grifalconi propelled me to experiment and create water color paintings of war memories still rattling around in my head.     

In a writing career that produced more than 100 books for children and young adults, Myers kept returning to dig deeper into the patriotic mythology of war. 

“I joined the army on my seventeenth birthday, full of the romance of war after having read a lot of World War I British poetry and having seen a lot of post−World War II films. … My younger brother’s death in Vietnam was both sobering and cause for reflection. In Fallen Angels I wanted to dispel the notion of war as either romantic or simplistically heroic,” he said in an interview provided by Scholastic, one of his publishers.

“I want young people to be hesitant to glorify war and to demand of their leaders justification for the sacrifices they ask of our citizens,” Myers continued in the interview on the Scholastic website. “The young people who read Fallen Angels some twenty years ago are the same ones who are the senior officers in today’s military. I hope that reading Fallen Angels has made them prudent leaders. And when they progress to becoming decision makers, I hope that the earnest literature they have encountered, including Fallen Angels and Sunrise Over Fallujah will cause them to deliberate wisely.”

A high school dropout who joined the army seeking boyish adventure, Myers turned a yen for reading into a self-made career writing about youngsters struggling through tough times. Of his book titled Just Write, a reviewer at Booklist noted: "Walter Dean Myers offers a wealth of advice that is professional and pragmatic and often couched in the context of his own work. Feeling that books saved his life, Myers now gives his readers the same opportunity through his advice and his large-hearted example."

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