Books Changed His Life

It is with great sadness that we convey to you, this evening, news of the passing of a great friend of the Library of Congress and all people who know the joy of reading – author Walter Dean Myers, winner of two Newbery Honors and five Coretta Scott King awards.

Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers

He served in 2012 and 2013 as the Library’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and his theme was “Reading Is Not Optional.”  Walter Dean Myers’ own life was an object example of how becoming literate can literally alter one’s future for the better. He not only wrote books with storylines compelling to young men of his own disadvantaged early background, but carried his message of the hope reading can bring to underserved and incarcerated Americans.

He spoke at the Library’s National Book Festivals in 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2012.

This man walked his talk.  What follows is an endpaper he wrote for the September/October 2013 issue LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine:

**

Walter Dean Myers, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, believes in the power of reading to transform lives.

At a breakfast in Austin, Texas, some years ago, I was watching a group of librarians chatting over coffee and sweets when a man approached me and asked how I thought we could get more children reading. Assuming he was a librarian, I went into my usual s­­­piel about getting young parents to read to toddlers. He replied, “Well, that’s all good, but do you think it’s actually going to happen?”

I did think that it could happen. I believed it then and I believe now as I finish my stint as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

During the past decade I have spent a lot of time visiting juvenile detention centers around the country. I have continued to visit these facilities during my tenure as National Ambassador. The correlation between reading and success for these kids is clear and well-documented. I’ve spent years trying to figure out just how these young people went wrong and how we, as concerned and caring adults, could have intervened. I then asked myself how I escaped the traps they face.

Raised in a foster home by a barely literate mother and a functionally illiterate father, I was not a great candidate for National Ambassador of anything. When my mother worked, it was either in New York’s garment center or cleaning other people’s homes. However, when she wasn’t working, she would read to me. What she read were romance magazines and an occasional comic book. I didn’t understand what was going on in the magazines or much of what was going on in the comics, but I enjoyed the closeness of sitting on Mama’s lap and the sound of her voice in our small Harlem kitchen. I remember watching her finger move along the lines of type as she read and began to understand the connection between how the words looked on paper and how they sounded.

Later, I would be disappointed in my mother as alcoholism claimed much of her life and all of our closeness. After my uncle was murdered, my father plummeted into a depression that further added misery to the already angst-ridden family. I dropped out of high school, but I was already a reader. Even when I was fighting in gangs, I would spend my non-combat moments alone with the new friends I had found—Balzac, Shakespeare, Thomas Mann.

Over the last two years I’ve seen an American literacy problem that is growing. This year the high school graduation rate in New York decreased. Also decreasing is the number of young people achieving the high level of reading competency required for today’s workplace.

We are, as a nation, interested in solving the problem. The man I assumed was a librarian in Austin turned out to be Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He wanted a simple and direct solution to the problem, and I wanted to help.

I still do, and I will continue trying to spread the word about the importance of reading. I am working with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress and the nonprofit literacy organization Every Child a Reader to establish a neighborhood reading center in New York.

The nation has to avoid the easy path of giving up on children because their parents and communities can be difficult to involve. I believe Americans are too good, and too generous a people, to let that happen.

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