Literacy Leader: Reading Is Not Optional

Walter Dean Myers says that equality of opportunity is meaningless if black kids aren't literate.

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WDM: I think it's positive if young people want to read [in order] to follow up [their use of] Twitter and blogs. We haven't made as much of blogs and things as we will in the future. I think we'll do even better in the future, bringing kids to reading through these things. It's positive now, but it will become even more positive.

TR: The national ambassador for young people's literature position was created to raise awareness about the connection between literature and the betterment of the lives of young people. Can reading alone really make a difference in a child's life, without accompanying social support and economic empowerment?

WDM: In my case, I left school at 16 and joined the Army. What happened to me after that, after I got out of the Army during the Vietnam War, was that I could take advantage of any opportunity that came my way because I was an excellent reader. Is reading going to replace a job? No. Is reading going to save you in a depression? It can help. It will give you clues to how to live your life.

I think, right now, the economy looks as if it may be on its way to recovery. The people who are going to benefit from this recovery are the people with skills, and the basic skills they need are reading skills.

TR: How do we see the importance of reading and the consequences of not reading play out in the African-American community in particular?

WDM: When I go to juvenile-detention centers and adult prisons, I am seeing people who don't read or who can't read proficiently. When I see young people trying to make it in a very tough economy, I see people who, if they can't read, don't have a way.

In New York, 40 percent of kids in the eighth grade are reading proficient. Among African-American kids, it's only 15 percent. That's a crisis. It's a national disaster. Equal opportunity doesn't mean anything if youth are not equally prepared.

TR: If you could give one piece of concrete advice to African-American parents about reading to children, what would it be?

WDM: I would begin reading to the child at 2 months. It doesn't have to be any huge academic thing or a big, fat book. Read something to the child every day. Encourage the child to look at pictures. Encourage the child to participate – "How do you think mama bear felt when she saw someone in her bed?" -- that kind of dialogue.

With teenagers, older children from 11 up, I would like to see people read the same book the child is reading -- maybe take turns, discuss the book. That will be very useful.