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 People’s Literature. In a talk at the Library’s 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 they’ve 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 couldn’t 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 neighbor’s 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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, he’ll wake up between 4:30 and 5 a.m., make some coffee and “feed my wife’s little ugly cat.” Then he’ll 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.
“It’s 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 children’s 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 Library’s Young Readers Center, participate in the D.C. Public Library’s 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.