I am embarrassed to say that I had quite forgotten about the death of Walter Dean Myers until I read Sofia Quintero’s recent moving tribute: “Walter Dean Myers, Writing White, and Affirmation” (available at Biographile and since reprinted with a different title in other online publications). Like Quintero, I also remember first hearing the sad news almost 18 months ago that Myers had died and feeling an overwhelming sense of loss. Odd, since I had never met the man. But I deeply regretted that nothing more would be written in his voice—a voice so accessible that young people couldn’t help devouring his books and adults couldn’t help admiring his handiwork.
I read his work as an adult—not all of it, though perhaps I should have—and I immediately insisted that my own children and the students I worked with in New York City read it. Parents, don’t you or your children of any age miss these:
- His long poem Harlem, which brings Harlem’s streets to life, is contemporary poetry at its best (we actually performed a choral reading of it with the students of one tough Brooklyn high school class). Harlem succeeds partly because of its words and partly because of its illustrations, done by the brilliant artist/illustrator, Christopher Myers, the author’s son. (Note to parents of young children: Do not miss Christopher’s books, either. Two of my all-time favorite children’s books are Christopher’s Black Cat for little kids and Wings for elementary-school kids.)
- His autobiographical Bad Boy: A Memoir is a tour de force, with motivational life lessons from the author as a kid (who was not perfect) and as a young adult (who eventually found his way). There are scenes in it so memorable and so powerful that your children will never forget them.
- His laugh-out-loud, yet authentic, Harlem Summer, is a wonderful historical novel about the Harlem Renaissance and its famous figures—as seen through the eyes of a teenager. It is a fantastic introduction to this important period of American literary and artistic history. And you will never hear Langston Hughes’s “Negro Speaks of Rivers” recited again without smiling. Believe me.
So, what am I asking you to do, parents—other than read the works of Walter Dean Myers yourselves and get them for your children? Simply this: Make sure that some of his works (particularly the ones above, I say impartially) appear on your school district reading list.
Ay, there’s the rub. Some of you are going to find that there is no district reading list. I am not talking about a summer reading list, though I would be happy for Walter Dean Myers to appear on that. I am talking about the list of novels, short stories, plays, poems, and nonfiction pieces that teachers teach in class from kindergarten through grade 12. They are the mandatory pieces of literature that all elementary school teachers and English language arts middle school and high school teachers are required to cover in their classes. Assigning key works of literature—the classics as well as contemporary works—to certain grades will keep teachers from accidentally teaching the same thing in two different years and will make sure that all teachers of one grade level teach at least the works on the list (they should be free, of course, to go beyond the list—as long as they don’t pick up something that has been assigned to another grade level). Having common texts allows teachers of later grades to build on works that their students have already studied and allows kids to be able to talk with their friends about common themes and issues raised in their reading.
Before you say that this seems unnecessarily rigid, keep in mind that it is what Columbia College (the prestigious undergraduate arts and sciences college of Columbia University) does in its Core Curriculum for its entering freshmen. And Columbia is not the only college to do it.
You might recall that, some weeks ago, I wrote about whether Shakespeare should be in your school district’s literature curriculum and about who had the authority to make that decision. Now, it seems that I am making the case for Walter Dean Myers, and indeed I am. Shakespeare and Myers—that’s a worthy pair. But I am also making the case for making sure that your school district has a required reading list. No one wants to miss Walter Dean Myers.