Walter Dean Myers was born in West Virginia in 1937. Myers’s mother died three years after his birth, and his father, too poor to raise him, put him into foster care. His foster parents lived in the African-American neighborhood of Harlem in New York City, and he spent most of his childhood and young adulthood there. Though Myers describes his young life as happy—filled with basketball games, a loving upbringing, and good books—he suffered from a speech impediment that made it difficult for him to communicate with others, and at first filled him with rage. Unable to reach out verbally, Myers turned to writing, pouring out his thoughts in poems and short stories. He spent hours in the public library, reading anything he could get his hands on. By the time Myers reached high school, he knew he had intellectual potential, but also knew that his family was too poor to send him to college. Discouraged, he dropped out of school at age fifteen, and though he was persuaded to return, he dropped out again at sixteen. In 1954, on his seventeenth birthday, he joined the army.
Upon his release from the army, Myers had few job skills and little education, and he still suffered from his speech impediment. He took a job loading trucks and then worked in a number of odd jobs in places such as the New York State Department of Labor, a post office, and a rehabilitation center. Myers also kept writing throughout this time, submitting his work to various magazines and periodicals. In 1969, Myers’s career received a boost when his novel Where Does a Day Go? won a contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. Since then, Myers has been able to support himself with his writing, turning out a large number of books for children and young adults. Two of Myers’s novels have won the Newbery Honor Award, and five, including Fallen Angels, have earned him the Coretta Scott King Award. In addition to prose fiction, Myers has written poetry and nonfiction work for young adults. In 1984, more than two decades after leaving high school, he graduated from Empire State College. He currently lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, where he writes full time and volunteers in local schools.
Myers has drawn heavily from his own life experiences in writing his novels. He has frequently written about basketball, one of his favorite pastimes, and has set many of his works in his familiar childhood neighborhood of Harlem. Like Richie Perry in Fallen Angels, Myers joined the army as a teenager. Despite this frequent reliance on his own experience, however, Myers has also incorporated a number of historical and foreign settings in his novels. Fallen Angels takes place in Vietnam, a theater of war in which Myers never served since he was in the army too early.
The Vietnam War lasted from 1959 to 1973. The United States reached its highest level of involvement in the war in approximately 1967, the year in which Fallen Angels is set. The conflict arose from American fears that the Communist regime in North Vietnam might conquer the southern part of the country, unifying the two halves under Communist leadership. Though many saw the Vietnam War as essentially a civil war and believed the United States should not have become involved, the United States government believed intervention was necessary to stop the spread of Communism. This idea was called the domino theory, since it focused on the possibility that if South Vietnam fell under Communist control, all of Southeast Asia would follow, in effect setting off a Communist chain reaction throughout many countries. The Americans assisted the South Vietnamese with military advice, modern weapons technology, massive bombing campaigns, and combat troops, which at first seemed successful in pushing back the Communist forces. However, the guerilla tactics of the North Vietnamese proved surprisingly resilient to modern American methods of warfare, and the United States pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, failing to accomplish its goal. Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to Communist rule in 1975.