Take 550 grade- and middle-school kids; put em in a room with an amazing author they know and love; add a barrage of questions about the creative process and a dash of humor.
One hour later, open the doors and stand back as a large flock of reading would-be writers burst out upon the world!
Today, Walter Dean Myers, in dialogue with just such a crowd of engaged kids from several District of Columbia-area elementary and middle schools, talked about how he became the award-winning author of more than 100 books indeed, about how he became the Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young Peoples Literature. In a talk at the Librarys Coolidge Auditorium, Myers told the entranced crowd that a story requires an interesting character with an interesting problem.
As he invited his audience to think of the times theyve snapped out of a daydream to ask, How did I get here, he revealed elements of his own life that tabbed him as an interesting character who lived through a set of interesting problems.
First off, he was born Walter Milton Myers. But he became Walter Dean Myers after being brought up by foster parents named Dean, in Harlem.
His foster father couldnt read, but his foster mother liked romance magazines, and as he followed her finger following the text as she read aloud, he began to put the words on the page together with what she was saying.
He became an avid reader of everything from his neighbors discarded comic books to Robin Hood, in which he visualized himself as the outsize character Little John.
But Myers had a couple of interesting problems: he dropped out of school at 15, preferring basketball and baseball to school. And he liked to read, but he lived in a neighborhood where that wasnt considered cool so he hid his library books in a big paper grocery sack to stay out of fights on the way home.
After a stint in the Army and the death of his brother, who was also a soldier of the Vietnam War era Myers began to write. He wrote about what he knew basketball, Harlem, Vietnam. Some of it wasnt good, but he developed a discipline about it and got better and better. And he started to make a living at it.
Every day, Myers said, hell wake up between 4:30 and 5 a.m., make some coffee and feed my wifes little ugly cat. Then hell start writing five pages a day, five days a week. I write more than anybody in their right mind would publish, but I still love it, he said.
Its a great life.
Myers theme this year as National Ambassador is: Reading is Not Optional. In remarks he made when he was named to the post earlier this year, he noted that his great life was made possible by being a good reader and that the jobs of today require an ability to read.
His talk today memorialized the late Jonah Solkoff Eskin, an avid young reader whose family honors his memory by supporting an annual lecture at the Library by a major childrens author. His parents, Barney and Marcia, were there, along with his brother Lee, other family members and friends.
As the 550 kids burst out of the auditorium today jazzed by Myers talk and eager to visit the Librarys Young Readers Center, participate in the D.C. Public Librarys summer reading program and a Book That Shaped Me essay contest the Library of Congress is locally sponsoring as part of the lead-up to its September National Book Festival you could almost feel the heft of the books many of them will read, and write, in your empty hand.