Honoring America

Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers discuss 9/11 and their new book

Sep 08, 2011 | By Vickie An
MALIN FEZEHAL

What does it mean to be an American? Best-selling author Walter Dean Myers and his son, award-winning artist Christopher Myers, try to answer this in their book We Are America: A Tribute from the Heart.

Walter was compelled to write the book after the grief he witnessed and felt following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. That morning, known now as 9/11, terrorists seized control of four passenger planes. They crashed them into the World Trade Center towers, in New York City, and the Pentagon, in Washington, D.C.; one plane crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people.

Wanting to pay tribute to his country, Walter began to research historic documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He wanted to rediscover for himself what being an American meant.

Through Walter’s poetry and Christopher’s paintings, the pair explore the nation’s past, present and future. They honor the people who have helped shape—and who will help shape—the U.S. TFK spoke to the father-son team about this special collaboration.

TFK:

What did it mean to you to be American post-9/11?

CHRISTOPHER MYERS:

For me, 9/11 was a reminder to be part of this conversation that is America. Even the book itself, its format, is a conversation—a conversation between Dad’s text and my pictures, a conversation between my pictures and the quotes of great Americans... No matter how old you are, you can take part in this conversation.

WALTER DEAN MYERS:

After 9/11, I said to myself, “I need to take responsibility for being an American.” One of the things that’s changed in my lifetime—I’m 74 years old—is that we don’t take responsibility for things that we used to. We don’t take responsibility for family, for relationships or for being citizens. As we move away from that, we endanger ourselves and our country.

We Are America: A Tribute From the Heart
COURTESY HARPER COLLINS
We Are America: A Tribute From the Heart

CHRISTOPHER:

One thing we were challenged with in writing this book was: What does an American look like? Do I look like an American? Does Dad? Do my neighbors? What does taking responsibility look like? It may not look like waving the American flag at every parade. But it can look like people having hard conversations, people around dinner tables asking what they want from this country.

TFK:

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is this year. How will you commemorate the day?

CHRISTOPHER:

I watched the events of 9/11 from the roof of my house. I could see the smoke coming from the World Trade Center. It was a landmark for me and for my family. My mother used to work in the buildings back in the day. It was a meeting place for the entire world. You had every kind of person coming through. That’s what America looks like to me. So I thought it was important that we invite young people to share their visions of America. I put together a website, www.who-is-america.com. We hope kids will submit videos of what America looks like to them.

TFK:

What have been some of the most memorable responses you’ve received from kids who have read the book?

WALTER:

One young girl said to me that before she started talking about it in class, she’d never been proud to be an American. Now, she is, and I think that’s so exciting.

TFK:

American history is so complex. How did you decide what to include and what to leave out? Did things change as you started putting the book together?

WALTER:

Things changed quite a bit. When I first began the book, it was an over-the-top kind of emotional response. But as I started to research our nation’s history, what I saw were people struggling with huge ideas. I began looking for these ideas—of the places of women in our society, the places of minorities in our society . . . These ideas were fought over and argued about. That became my focus rather than just “America, the beautiful.”

CHRISTOPHER:

My challenge was electing which Americans I felt were important or undersung. Every time Black History Month comes around, we talk about Martin Luther King, Jr. Every time we talk about American history, everyone thinks of George Washington. But there are so many Americans who have contributed not only to the country, but to the world. I have for sure left out some amazing Americans. That’s why we want to continue the project on the website and have other people contribute.

WALTER:

[Joking] I was hoping he would put his esteemed father in, but he didn’t.

CHRISTOPHER:

Oh, you’re very, very small in the back of one of the pictures, Dad. You need to look again!

TFK:

The book was conceived because of 9/11—is there a reason it’s not more outwardly included in the book?

WALTER:

There is. I don’t think that our appreciation of this country should only be reactive. What we need is to sustain our appreciation of what makes America great. We have to understand what people around the world see when they immigrate to America. They see something special here, and we need to not take it for granted.

CHRISTOPHER:

The tragedy of 9/11 and the greatness of America is not embodied in buildings. America is really about people. I didn’t want to focus on the buildings and the monuments, I wanted to focus on the people.

TFK:

This is your fifth collaboration as author and illustrator. How was this project different from the others?

WALTER:

We’ve had quite a bit of success working together, so the expectations have grown, and we both understand that. Next I’m going to write a book with all invisible characters and see what he does with that.

CHRISTOPHER:

Just in case I don’t have enough to do he’s going to do a book with invisible characters and invisible words, and I’ll just have to guess! [Laughs] He’s joking, but sadly, now I’m afraid. That’s how a lot of good ideas start—as jokes.

TFK:

What else do you hope your book will inspire in readers?

WALTER:

With all of my books, if it gets young people thinking about the subject matter, that’s just fine with me.

CHRISTOPHER:

For research, I went to a swearing-in ceremony for new Americans in Brooklyn. At the end, after people from 150 different countries swore allegiance and became citizens, the judge who gave the oath said, “I want you to know that no matter who you are, at this moment you are American. You are as American as anyone else.” That’s something I want kids to know. Kids who are American are as American as George Washington. He is not more American than you. You too take part in this grand conversation. I’m eager to see what everyone’s contribution will be.