Street-smart Walter Dean Myers named national ambassador for children's literature
Walter Dean Myers, the author of "Fallen Angels," "Sunrise Over Fallujah," Monster," "Hoops" and other hard-hitting novels for youth, has been named the new national ambassador for children's literature. He succeeds Katherine Paterson ("A Bridge to Terabithia"), who had served in the spot since 2010.
According to a Publisher's Weekly report, Myers will accept the position in a Jan. 10 ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington.
“I imagine myself on one knee with a sword,” said Myers in a telephone interview with PW from his home in Jersey City, N.J. “It’s exciting. It’s a chance to stand up and say publicly what I’ve been saying privately. There is a crisis involving reading in certain communities.”
"The choice of Mr. Myers represents a departure from his predecessors and is likely to be seen as a bold statement," Julie Bosman wrote in The New York Times."His books chronicle the lives of many urban teenagers, especially young, poor African-Americans. While his body of work includes poetry, nonfiction and the occasional cheerful picture book for children, its standout books offer themes aimed at young-adult readers: stories of teenagers in violent gangs, soldiers headed to Iraq and juvenile offenders imprisoned for their crimes.
"While many young-adult authors shy away from such risky subject material, Mr. Myers has used his books to confront the darkness and despair that fill so many children’s lives."
This much I can say: Myers' war stories are among the few novels that excited a semi-reluctant middle-school reader in the Recommended Reading household.
I had the good fortune of meeting Myers in 2002 when he visited the Milwaukee Public Library for an event. Here's a repost of the story I wrote then.
Former `bad boy' taps into youths' minds, struggles
(originally published May 26, 2002)
As a teen, Walter Dean Myers was walking in Harlem with his brother when he saw "a brown-skinned man who was being interviewed by some white reporters."
It was Langston Hughes, the poet.
"We listened to him talk," Myers recalled in his memoir "Bad Boy." "He sounded like any black man on the street. There was nothing extraordinary about him. . . . His humor was gentle, thoughtful. I was disappointed.
"When I pictured the idea of `writer' in my mind, pictures from my school books came to mind, and Hughes did not fit that picture. What I didn't admit was that neither did I."
To young Myers, who'd long been in love with books, a real writer was someone like Dylan Thomas, with a high, ethereal voice, writing poetry that was sometimes incomprehensible. Certainly not a normal-looking black man writing about "ordinary people and . . . a very mundane Harlem."
What Myers read in New York's P.S. 125 and Stuyvesant High School, when he showed up, was largely limited to white authors, frequently British, and often about rich people.
"Books transmitted value. They told us who was important," Myers told an audience at the Central Library's Centennial Hall earlier this month. "But the books never mentioned that anyone who lived in my neighborhood was important."
But Myers thinks people who live in Harlem are important, especially children. He writes the kind of books he wishes he could have read when he was a kid.
From a modest start scratching out stories after daily stints as a laborer, Myers has grown into the Shaquille O'Neal of young adult literature, a playful giant who's also an unstoppable force. Myers has published 75 books for teens and preteens, with seven more books in production.
He writes fairy tales (sometimes with a contemporary twist), historical novels, biographies. But his streetwise, honest, empathetic stories about African-American teens facing challenges and making difficult decisions have made him a lion in his field.
"Walter really knows how to tell a boy's story," said Roger Sutton, editor of The Horn Book, a periodical devoted to children's literature, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "You see a sense of the interior life of boys and men."