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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Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers, the award-winning author of more than 100 books, including the New York Times bestseller Monster, was sworn in this week as the national ambassador for young people's literature. 

The position is designed to raise national awareness of the importance of an appreciation for books to the betterment of children's lives. In other words, Myers will be leading the charge to get kids to understand that reading, as he says in the slogan he's chosen for his campaign, "is not optional."

The setting for many of Myers' books is New York City's Harlem neighborhood, which is where he grew up, a high school dropout who hid his books so he wouldn't be teased. His characters recall that experience -- they're often black teenagers grappling with tough issues, unsugarcoated: drug addiction, gangs and war.

Myers' message isn't sugarcoated, either: He's adamant that you cannot be successful if you don't read well. He wants parents to expose their babies to books from the age of 2 months. He calls the black illiteracy rate a national disaster.

The Root talked to Myers about his message that reading can help all kids be successful, his advice to black parents and his insistence that those who miss out on literacy will be lost.

The Root: You've said, "To do well in life, you have to read well," and "Reading is not optional." How do you plan to communicate that to kids who see athletes and reality-TV stars doing pretty well, with no mention of reading or literacy?

Walter Dean Myers: Right, but they [athletes and TV stars] actually represent such a tiny, tiny percentage of the population. Like when I was working with the NBA ... Take all the players in the NBA, and their grade schools have more people than everyone in the NBA. These people are such exceptions that it's meaningless. If you look at 99 percent of all people in America, you will find that the ones who are successful are the ones who read well.

You can even throw in the celebrities and the NBA guys and the footballers. I work with the NBA, and I know a lot of [former] NBA players who, if they didn't hang on to that money when they were in the NBA, are not doing very well. It’s the people who read well who are going to have a good life.

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TR: Where do you see social networking fitting into the fight for literacy? Does it take away from young people's love for reading because they choose it instead of books, or does it inspire literacy because it can direct kids to blogs, articles, news, etc., that might be of interest to them and can inspire them to read?