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.
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?
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.
TR: Can you give us some recommended reads for African-American kids by black authors?
A Million Fish … More or Less by Patricia C. McKissack (author) and Dena Schutzer (illustrator)
Baby Says by John Steptoe
Black Cat by Christopher Myers
Bright Eyes, Brown Skin by Cheryl Willis Hudson and Bernette G. Ford (authors) and George Ford (illustrator)
Brown Angels: An Album of Pictures and Verse by Walter Dean Myers
Dancing in the Wings by Debbie Allen (author) and Kadir Nelson (illustrator)
Girl of Mine by Jabari Asim (author) and LeUyen Pham (illustrator)
He's Got the Whole World in His Hands by Kadir Nelson
Let's Count, Baby by Cheryl Willis Hudson (author) and George Ford (illustrator)
Please, Puppy, Please by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee (authors) and Kadir Nelson (illustrator)
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor to The Root.