Walter Dean Myers's Appointment as Kid Lit Ambassador Stirs ControversyBy Rocco Staino January 6, 2012
The naming of Walter Dean Myers as the new National Ambassador for Young People's Literature on Tuesday has sparked a heated debate in response to an editorial questioning whether the award-winning author was the right choice for the two-year job.
While Alexander Nazaryan's January 4 opinion piece in the New York Daily News's Book Blog PageViews section praises Myers (left) for turning Nazaryan's Brooklyn middle school classroom "into a monastery" where boys fought to read the author's popular novels, Bad Boys (HarperCollins, 2001) and Hoops (Random, 1983), he also calls Myers's books "painfully mundane, with simple moral lessons built into predictable situations."
The article, "Against Walter Dean Myers and the dumbing down of literature: 'Those kids' can read Homer," goes on to say that students should "put away the Walter Dean Myers and dust off Homer, Virgil, Sappho" instead.
That prompted Betsy Bird, SLJ's A Fuse #8 Production blogger and a New York Public Library's youth materials collections specialist, to jokingly ask on Twitter whether Homer should have been given the ambassadorship instead.
Certainly Nazaryan, an editorial board member of the New York Daily News, the fourth most widely circulated newspaper in the nation with a subscriber base of more than 600,000, is entitled to his opinion. But it just didn't sit well with many librarians and Myers's supporters like Liz Burns, a New Jersey-based public librarian who also writes the SLJl blog, A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy.
"We do a disservice to readers of all ages when we categorize readers and their choices in extreme "either/or": either current young adult literature or classics," she says.
Others on Twitter agreed. "Kids need everything," wrote Laurel Snyder, author of Bigger Than a Breadbox (Random, 2011). "I don't think kids should only read what they like, any more than I think they should only eat Doritos."
Meanwhile, C. Alexander London, who wrote the "Accidental Adventure" (Philomel) series, wonders if Nazaryan is doing a disservice to students by discrediting Myers's books, especially when it comes to reluctant readers. "There is a real crisis of literacy among boys in this country, and we do nothing to ameliorate it by invalidating their reading choices."
Myers weighed in on the discussion himself, saying that "Nazaryan willfully overlooks the mountain of evidence that says teens don't have the linguistic skills to handle the works he cites." He went on to ask, "What he steers clear of in his diatribe is how effective a teacher he really is. What were the reading levels of those kids before they encountered him and what were they after they encountered him? Is he making a difference in their lives, or is he really just celebrating his own erudition?"
The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, one of the sponsors of the ambassador program, which highlights the importance of young people's literature, had no comment about the controversy. However, Robin Adelson, executive director of the Children's Book Council, which cosponsors the program, was clearly disturbed by the article.
"Mr. Nazaryan did not do his position or credibility any favors by referring to Walter's work as insipid and mundane," she says. "We have every confidence that Walter will touch people and affect positive change over the next two years and beyond and we are honored to have this opportunity to work with him and make a difference."
Chrystal Carr Jeter, chair of the Coretta Scott King - Virginia Hamilton Life Achievement Award, which Myers received in 2010, says Myer's books are fast becoming classics. "Youth, regardless of race or economic privilege, who are hungry for titles that relate to their own lives, no matter what year or century the stories depict, can see themselves in the books they are reading-be it Homer, Dostoevsky or Myers."
Sarah Flowers, president of the Young Adult Library Service Association (YALSA), also defended Myers's selection as ambassador. "Mr. Myers's books may not be to Mr. Nazaryan's taste, but his ability to connect with young people and help them become avid readers proves that he's an excellent choice as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature."