February 14, 2012
By Rebecca Gross
Walter Dean Myers. Photo courtesy of the author
“Reading is not optional.” —Walter Dean Myers
When Walter Dean Myers was a teenager, he was so embarrassed by his love of reading that he carried his library books hidden in a paper bag. In a January interview with the New York Times, Myers said, “I felt a little ashamed, having books.” Despite this, books anchored Myers throughout a difficult adolescence in Harlem, and later evolved from a source of comfort into a wildly successful career. The author of dozens of children’s and young adult books, Myers is celebrated for his frank portrayal of the problems that can derail a young person’s life before it ever truly begins: poverty, gang violence, broken homes, drugs. Among his many awards, he is a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, a two-time Newbery Honor recipient, a two-time National Book Award finalist, and the winner of the 2000 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Literature for Young Adults. Most recently, he was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a two-year position chosen by the Library of Congress. I talked with Myers via e-mail about his youth, the country’s alarming literacy gap, and how sugarcoating childhood in literature can be a way of dehumanizing readers.-------
NEA: What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature? What was your reaction when you found out you’d been selected for the position?
MYERS: Most of my writing life I’ve also tried to encourage young people to read. Being appointed National Ambassador gives me a public voice to add to my private efforts. I was thrilled and honored to become National Ambassador and I hope, basically, to be useful to America in changing the reading environment from one which suggests that reading is an attractive addition to one’s life to one that identifies reading as a basic need. “Reading is not Optional” will be my theme song. For the next two years I hope first to encourage families and communities to read with children for the first five years of their lives. I also hope to get mentoring groups to read with older children. What children read is less a concern of mine than the idea of building basic reading proficiency.