I was around 12 years old when my dad told me to read Walter Dean Myers’ Monster. I picked it up, kind of stunned to see a cover with a black guy on it. It’s funny because looking back I expect to have felt slight electric shocks as I opened the first page. But honestly, that page was just like any other book…except it wasn’t.
Unable to put the book down, I devoured those pages in about a day. Having the main character: Steve Harmon, write his own story as a screenplay was an excellent choice on the part of Mr. Myers, it adds a personal flavor to the narrative. We get to peer into Steve’s mind as he’s in jail and on trial for murder.
This narrative questions the American legal system and explores the innocent until proven guilty mantra. Looking at who Steve truly is versus how the public perceives him allows this book to connect with all types of people. Part of being human is being misunderstood and the pain and frustration of that misunderstanding comes across clearly.
I like to think of my reading life as pre-Monster and post-Monster because it changed so much for me. It was one of the first books I’d read since picture book age that featured a black main character. However, there’s another Walter Dean Myers book that impacted me even more than Monster.
To tell the story of his childhood and adolescence Walter Dean Myers wrote Bad Boy: A Memoir. Not only is it an entertaining story, but it grapples with deep, sometimes messy questions about life. Young Walter questions who God is, what it means to be black, and what it means to be a man. When he looks around him he only sees one way to be a black man and wrestles with the fact that he doesn’t fit that image.
But on top of wrestling with conventional blackness and masculinity, Walter deals with constantly being labeled as a bad boy by his teachers. Again, he doesn’t fit the mold that’s already in place and therefore from grade to grade a distorted reputation of his character follows him.
Even grazing mental illness, this book caused me to think so much about so many things. Thoughts of the detrimental nature of inaccurate cultural stereotypes, the power and danger of words, and the importance of understanding Christianity and clearly answering the questions surrounding it were all catalyzed by this narrative. That’s what Walter Dean Myers books always do. It’s no wonder that he inspired a whole generation of black authors: many of the other authors I’ve featured in this series were inspired to write by this one man.
The whole reason I’ve read enough black authors to fill the month of February is Mr. Myers. He is an icon and his works will forever live on.