A Rememory of Walter Dean Myers
The early champions who sought to bring diversity to children’s publishing
In honor of Multicultural History Month, we feel privileged to post this missive from Arnold Adoff on the early champions who sought to bring diversity to children’s publishing.
This r e m e m o r y of Walter Dean Myers
That word: r e m e m o r y is one coined by Virginia [Hamilton] and you must know I always feel since her death thirteen years ago . . . that she should still be here . . . and Walter should still be here . . . and Leo [Dillon] and Fred [McKissack] and others gone too soon.
Walter and Virginia were warriors . . . literary warriors . . . with that glinting consistency of effort and excellence. . . we were friends and comrades and fellow travelers . . . actually coming together only a few times a year to participate at a conference or speak at a convention . . . but always connecting over the years and decades as we published and spoke and struggled to break down the walls . . . open some of the musty rooms of youth literature . . . presenting images and stories to many thousands of young people of the post–(first) civil rights movement . . .
We first met after Virginia had published her first novel, Zeely, in 1967, and was receiving a Nancy Bloch award from the downtown community school. Bradford Chambers was one of the moving forces behind these early efforts at inclusion . . . and he and others formed the Council on Interracial Books for Children . . . their oversized bulletin devoting its back page to photos and bios and examples of work . . . and one day there was Walter . . . and a taste of his efforts . . . and his beginnings in our world.
So much of my anger is as much disappointment as it is a kind of negative rage. To have to revisit the Voting Rights Act—the way we’ll soon have to revisit the Roe v. Wade decision—kicks in the solar plexus . . . especially as my gut is far more tender than it was in struggles past . . . although no less keen. Some of what I write is simply and complexly to point out that the emperor is not even wearing a shred of silk around his sizable metaphoric rump.
“Walter and Virginia were warriors . . . literary warriors . . . with that glinting consistency of effort and excellence”
But, I also think of this new generation of writers and artists working to create excellence, and the academics and parents who study inclusion and multicultural youth literature, the Children’s Book Council Committee on Diversity and the Diversity Matters/We Need Diverse Books Now initiative, and the fine people making those open-eyed and openhearted efforts.
That’s why I mention Brad Chambers and his group of dedicated educators creating the Council on Interracial Books for Children—fifty years ago. And I mention now an organization begun several decades ago by Walter Dean Myers and Virginia [Hamilton] and [Leo and Diane] Dillon and Pat Cummings and Nicholasa Mohr and myself and Sheila Hamanaka . . . the Center for Multicultural Children’s Literature.
Working out of a small office donated by Scott Foresman/Harper’s and with a small budget from them as well, we were able to employ a part-time grad student to do preliminary reading of manuscripts and art portfolios from people around the country who needed those connections and an opening of the door to enter our field.
We did two more things: 1) writers and artists would be paired with many of us already publishing for some communication and mentoring and encouragement 2) editors and art directors were encouraged to be in touch with the center as they sought writers of color from all ethnicities and cultures as well as artists to illustrate manuscripts, and so on . . .
Finally, unlike these previously mentioned, an institution which is still flourishing at Kent State University after more than thirty years of annual conferences: the Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature for Youth. This is the oldest conference of its kind functioning annually as other worthy ones have been disbanded—Columbus, Boston, and San Francisco to name a few. This year the conference, which takes place on April 9 and 10, will feature keynote speakers David Macaulay, winner of this year’s Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, Rita Williams-Garcia, Newbery Honor winner, and Grace Lin, Newbery Honor winner. A host of others will speak and run workshops. Awards will be announced for academic articles and grants for those teachers and librarians who are working with multicultural materials on projects with their students.
Please go to their website at Kent State and you will find dozens of participants black, white, Hispanic, Asian, female, male, young, and old . . . year after year representing that grand metaphor of inclusive emperor dressed in the deepest and hippest outfits.
Of course Walter [Dean Myers] was the first recipient of the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for the body of his work in 1999, just as a few years ago in 2010, Walter Dean Myers was honored at the Coretta Scott King/American Library Association conference with the inaugural Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award.
Finally, you should know I write some of these posts periodically—as the compulsion takes over—just to remind myself of positive efforts, accomplishments, frameworks, templates, and foundations.
Besides—as my son Jaime taught me years ago—you bop ’til you drop.
The struggle continues.
Walter Dean Myers