Award-Winning Children's Book Author Walter Dean Myers Dies

Myers captured what it was like to be young and black while growing up in the city. As he often said, he wrote books he would have wanted to read as a kid. Myers died after a brief illness. He was 76.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I will never forget an interview we did two years ago with Walter Dean Myers, an award-winning children's author. He was talking about how some kids are embarrassed to be seen carrying books. Myers wanted them to get over that. As he put it, you can't do well in life if you don't read well. Walter Dean Myers died Tuesday after a brief illness. He was 76. He grew up in Harlem, and with books like the bestseller "Monster," he hoped to get African-American city kids interested in reading. It was part of a larger mission to ignite a love for books in places where they're often rare commodities. NPR's Lynn Neary has this remembrance.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: There was a reason that Walter Dean Myers felt so passionate about getting kids to read, says his literary agent, Miriam Altshuler.

MIRIAM ALTSHULER: Reading and books and writing - I think he would have said, you know, it saved him.

NEARY: Myers was born in West Virginia, but after his mother died giving birth to his sister, his father sent him to be raised by a couple in Harlem who he came to think of as his parents. Myers often told people about how his mother taught him to read - a story he repeated to NPR two years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALTER DEAN MYERS: My mom did not read well. And she read True Romance magazines. But she read with me, and she would spend 30 minutes a day, her finger going along the page, and I learned to read. Eventually, by the time I was 4 and a half, she could iron, and I could sit there and read the true romance. And that was wonderful.

NEARY: But school was not so wonderful for Myers. He had a speech impediment and began writing to make up for that. One teacher saw he had talent and told him to keep writing no matter what. After dropping out of high school and a stint in the army, Myers did just that. He was a prolific writer, turning out more than 100 books for kids and young adults. Myers' work included fiction, nonfiction, picture books and poetry, but he was perhaps best known for his realistic portrayals of urban life in such teen novels as "Lockdown," "Darius & Twig" and "Monster," about a young man in prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MYERS: (Reading) The best time to cry is at night when the lights are out, and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help. That way, even if you sniffle a little, they won't hear you. If anybody knows that you are crying, they'll start talking about it, and soon it will be your turn to get beat up when the lights go out.

NEARY: Myers literary agent, Miriam Altshuler, says these stories were aimed at young African-Americans who rarely saw themselves depicted in books.

ALTSHULER: That was the kids he cared about so much and also knew that they didn't have a voice. Their stories weren't being told and represented. But, you know, we wanted his audience to be so much bigger because if more people understood those kids, it would be a better place.

NEARY: Walter Dean Myers won numerous awards and in 2010 was named the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. He traveled around the country, promoting the importance of books. John Cole, director of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress says it was a perfect platform for Myers' message that, quote, "reading is not optional."

JOHN COLE: He gave a wonderful talk at the Library of Congress where we had nothing but kids. And they filled the Coolidge Auditorium and sat at his feet and loved listening to him because he was both serious but gave them this great sense of hope. He represented this sense of possibility through what he had done and did not hesitate to talk about his own difficult life.

NEARY: Walter Dean Myers never stopped writing. Two new books and a graphic novel adaptation of "Monster" are still waiting to be published. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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