When was the last time you sat down and starting reading a book with no idea what it was about? That was my experience with Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers. Listed as one of the reading choices for a school assignment, I selected the novel based on the fact that it was the only YA option. I had heard of Walter Dean Myers before, but was not sure what to expect from a YA novel with a soldier in action on the front cover.
I was initially caught off guard by the story (you don’t find many YA novels about fighting at war) and subsequently awed by Myer’s beautiful, yet harrowing storytelling about a young Harlem teenager named Perry and his experiences as a black soldier fighting in the trenches of the Vietnam War in the late 1960’s. It’s rare I find a YA novel that is unlike any other YA novel I’ve read before.
Towards the end of the book, Perry finds himself hiding from the enemy and holed up (literally) overnight with his best friend and fellow squad member Peewee. As they hold each other, hoping to make it long enough to see the sunrise, Perry thinks to himself “I had never been in love before. Maybe this was what it was like, the way I felt for Monaco and Peewee and Johnson and the rest of my squad. I hoped this was what it was like”.
Sometimes, a book just hits you. I felt that wonder that only comes from reading: that wonder, that somehow, someone writing from decades in the past, from and about a completely different life experience is able to reach through time and print and page and connect with you, the reader, sitting comfortably in their living room, now reaching for a box of tissues.
Walter Dean Myers
All of my life accomplishments together wouldn’t take up one line on Myer’s resume. As a fan of YA literature, I feel like I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Myers; he truly shaped and changed the field of youth literature in his lifetime. I’ve been staring in awe at his Wikipedia page for the last twenty minutes as I write this article. Some of his accomplishments include publishing over a hundred novels for young people and serving as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Among many other awards, he was a three time National Book Award nominee, winner of the National Outstanding Children’s Literature award and a five time winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award for his distinguished portrayal of African American experiences in literature.
Myers is perhaps best known for his novel Monster which employs a mixture of a third-person screenplay and first-person diary format to tell the story of Steve Harmon, an African American teenager and his trial for murder in the state of New York. In 2015, the book was adapted as a graphic novel and in 2018 a film version of the book called “All Rise” debuted at the Sundance film festival.
Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?
Three months before he passed away in 2014, at 76 years old, Myers published an opinion piece in The New York Times entitled “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”. In the piece, Myers describes how he grew up a voracious young reader, that “to an extent I found who I was in the books I read”, but that there was something missing and for lack of representation and seeing himself in what he read, books eventually came to be “more like friends with whom I no longer felt comfortable”. He details the experiences that led him to writing and how he developed a deep passion in writing for young people of color saying “I need to make them feel as if they are part of America’s dream, that all the rhetoric is meant for them”. He goes on to call out the racism still present in the publishing industry. The final words of the article remind us all that, “There is work to be done”.