Join Our Community

Too Important to Fail

Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors

Too Important to Fail

Powerful stories from the ‘hood.’
Tavis  Smiley
Tavis Smiley More by this author
Jul 21, 2013 at 10:00 AM

It was one of those unexpected moments of deep revelation.

Walter Dean Myers wasn’t expecting anything special as he boarded the train on that particular morning. The author, who has written more than 100 books, is perhaps the most dominant African American voice in young adult literature. Myers’s work reflects the lives of young Black people—the places they live; the sports they play; the struggles, letdowns, and triumphs they navigate; and the insecurities they shoulder from living in homes without fathers and in neighborhoods without safety. There probably isn’t a school library in the country that doesn’t have Myers’s signature work, Monster, on its shelves.

On the train, a young girl, head down, was caught up in a Walter Dean Myers book. She had no idea the author, just seats away, was quietly watching and enjoying her absorption in his work.

“And then she stopped and just looked up in the air,” Myers recalled, as he shared the incident with us. “And I knew, for that moment, I was occupying her mind.”

“My stories don’t have to be good stories. All they have to be is stories, which reflect their lives. That’s all it has to be . . . if it reflects their lives, they will find a way to go through that book. And . . . that’s all that it takes.”

Myers knows he is blessed with a rare gift. Through his work, he can capture the minds of young people. He can help them see themselves outside the narrow and negative prisms mass media reserves for those who look like them. Without finger pointing or pontificating, Myers has given hundreds of thousands of young people, some whose dreams have been crushed, the license to dream anyway.

“I know where these kids are coming from. I know what they’re going through. I know how it feels to be a young Black teenager. When I include them in my books—and not just with a Black face, but with the full spectrum of their lives—I think this is what they’re looking for.”

Myers has successfully chronicled the lives of disadvantaged Black youth, especially boys, because that was his life too. Two years after his birth in 1937, Walter Milton Myers was given to Herbert and Florence Dean, an African American man and a woman of German and Native American descent. To this day, Myers writes on his web site, he’s not sure why his birth parents gave him away. But he loved the Deans dearly and assumed the last name of his adoptive parents.

Myers was raised in Harlem, which he loved. He met Langston Hughes and James Baldwin in his own neighborhood. Myers said he was a very bright child for the first 13 years of his life, until his “family began to fall apart.”

In the midst of family turmoil, Myers went from being a “bright” child to a distracted and troubled student. He was quick-tempered and got into fights often. Still, Myers had developed an early appetite for books. He’d bring them home from libraries wrapped in brown paper bags to avoid being teased by neighborhood boys who preyed on bookish types.

Eventually, Myers decided to drop out of high school. Teachers and counselors tried to intervene. They wanted to help, but Myers didn’t feel comfortable opening up and sharing his personal pain with them: “The counselors asked me what was wrong . . . I wasn’t going to tell some teacher that my mom is an alcoholic—I wasn’t going to do that,” Myers said.

A high school teacher encouraged Myers to write. He did and enjoyed it. Myers considered himself a fairly decent writer. Even though he was determined to drop out at the age of 16, his teacher encouraged him to keep writing, no matter what happened in his life. “It’s what you do,” Myers said, recalling the teacher’s advice.

Myers joined the Army at the age of 17. When he got out four years later, he tried to figure out what a young man with no high school diploma could do with his life. One day, while working on a construction site, the teacher’s words came back to him. “So I tried writing, and I enjoyed it, not because I made any money at it, but rather because it made me feel better about myself.”

The rest, as they say, is history. But Myers has never forgotten how reading, writing, and words impacted his life and career. He spends countless hours in schools, juvenile detention centers, and libraries, trying to share what he knows about books with young people. Myers is a staunch believer in the transformative power of books, but he’s also keenly aware of the damage wrought by literature that does not reflect the lives of Black youth.

As a child in the 1950s, Myers was exposed only to white and British authors. When he met Langston Hughes in Harlem, he didn’t consider the legendary author and poet a “real writer,” because Hughes wasn’t white, Myers recalled during a 2008 National Public Radio interview. “I didn’t see myself represented in any of the reading material. And I understand, as other kids do, that when they go to school, books transmit values. And if I’m not in those books, what are you saying about my values?”

If he had been exposed to books “which included my life,” Myers said, he would have finished high school and gone on to college. That simple but powerful recognition motivates him to talk to as many educators and school administrators as possible.

About Author
Tavis  Smiley
Tavis Smiley is a broadcaster, author, advocate, and philanthropist. Tavis Smiley continues to be an outstanding voice for change.  Smiley is currently the host of the late-night television talk show Tavis Smile Continue reading