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Children’s Crusade

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Something about his fan mail disturbs Walter Dean Myers.

Walter Dean Myers visits with students at 13th Avenue School in Newark, N.J., as part of the My Very Own Library literacy initiative, supported by the Foundation for Newark’s Future, the city of Newark and Ms. Anne Feely.

Myers, the author of critically acclaimed books for young people such as “Monster,” “Fallen Angel” and “Lockdown,” appreciates the gesture.

But in too many of the letters, evidence of a serious decline in the reading and writing skills among the youth of America is painfully obvious.

“It used to be that when you got fan mail, you could look at the letter and guess the age – oh, this is from a second grader, this is from a third grader,” Myers says. “Today, it could be from a high school kid, the writing is so bad and the spelling is so bad. There is a noticeable difference.”

Myers now has a new platform from which to address the issue, one he believes is critical – in January, he was inaugurated as the national ambassador for young people’s literature in a ceremony at the Library of Congress.

Myers returns to the Library on Friday, May 11 at 11 a.m. for a Children’s Book Week program in the Coolidge Auditorium, where he will read from his work and discuss the importance of literacy for young people.

The event, supported by the Jonah S. Eskin Memorial Fund, is free and open to the public. No tickets are required.

Myers used to get about two invitations a week from schools, libraries and other groups for appearances at literary events – a number that has increased to about six since he became ambassador.

Such programs, he says, can be “a bit frustrating”: Those who attend generally need no convincing of the importance of reading, and Myers especially wants to reach the audience most in need of help.

“Most of the programs are for people who read well,” he says. “I thought [as ambassador] I would emphasize people who read badly.”

With that in mind, Myers selected “reading is not optional” as the theme of his two-year ambassadorship – a theme that makes clear his belief in the necessity of reading to a prosperous life.

That, the 75-year-old Myers says, wasn’t as true when he was a kid.

Then, 15 families lived in his building in Harlem. One of the men worked for the postal service, and all the others worked in factory or service jobs.

“They didn’t have to read and write,” Myers says. “If you didn’t have the ability to read in those days, you could still make a living, you could still feed your family. Today, you can’t do that.”

As ambassador, Myers hopes to convince the young people most at risk of that.

“I’m more open to poorer schools,” he says. “I’m more open to kids who are further behind.”

His schedule illustrates his approach: Myers, naturally, includes visits to book festivals and libraries but also, for example, a visit to a juvenile detention center in Delaware, a Skype session with students at a school for children with learning disabilities in New Jersey and a visit to a detention center in Tennessee.

“Some of these kids are so far behind,” Myers says. “It’s very, very sad. What are they going to do? …  “Are they going to be unemployed or underemployed all their lives because they don’t have the education to take meaningful jobs and they don’t have the education to change jobs?”

Part of the problem, he says, is people are reluctant to address the issue directly.

“We need to change the environment in an important way, and we need to have people with the guts to speak about it,” Myers says. “Right now as a society, we’re loath to speak about it because we don’t want to be viewed as blaming the poor. We don’t want to be viewed as being racist.

“The way to go is to confront the problem and change the atmosphere – begin to tell children and their families and communities that reading is not something that is going to be a pleasant adjunct to their lives, but it is going to be something that is fundamental to their existence.”

Myers learned that himself the hard way.

He was born in Martinsburg, W.Va., during the Great Depression. His mother died when he was very young. His father gave him to a Harlem couple, Herbert and Florence Dean, to raise.

Herbert Dean – who, Myers discovered only after his death, was illiterate – worked his entire adult life as a janitor. Florence Dean cleaned houses and worked in a button factory.

When Myers was 13, his uncle was murdered, his stepfather went into depression, and his stepmother became a “full-fledged alcoholic.”

Myers attended Stuyvesant High School – a school for smart kids – but couldn’t stay out of trouble. He suffered a speech impediment. He got into fights, skipped classes and, at 17, dropped out of school and joined the Army.

All along, he read – even though he couldn’t relate to classical literature. “Nothing in my life was in any of those books,” he says.

At 20, he read a short story in a literary quarterly by James Baldwin, who was raised about a half-mile from where Myers lived in Harlem.

The story was “Sonny’s Blues,” and it was set in Harlem – a revelation to Myers.

“I was just amazed that anybody was writing about Harlem,” he says.

Eventually, Myers began to write – first short fiction about sports and later about the most difficult period of his life, his teens.

“I never thought I’d make a living at writing, but it made me feel good about myself since I hadn’t finished high school,” he says.

Now, 58 years after he dropped out of high school, Myers is the acclaimed author of more than 100 books – stories for young people that explore serious and often bleak subjects.

“Fallen Angels” tells of a Harlem teenager who volunteers to serve in Vietnam after his dreams of attending college fail. “Dope Sick” chronicles the experiences of a 17-year-old with a drug habit. “Monster,” for which Myers won the Michael L. Printz Award in 2000, follows a 16-year-old in Harlem who is charged with murder.

“I want kids to say, my neighborhood is not that bad if Walter Dean Myers can write about it,” Myers says. “Let me read what he has to say.”

Myers first began visiting prisons many years ago – he wanted to understand the path from innocent third grader to criminal.

Those inmates, he figured, were too old to help. Maybe, though, he could use the insights gained during his youth to help a younger generation in juvenile detention centers.

“When I tell people that I was given away when I was 3 to some family friends, they recognize this,” Myers says. “They want to know how I felt at that time because they want to compare it to how they feel.”

That, he says, helps inspire what he writes – and what he chooses to do as the ambassador for young peoples literature.

“What I want to do for the two years that I’m the ambassador, I want to be useful,” he says. “How I can be useful is to take all the research on literacy and writing and make it into a public discussion. I want to change the discussion from the idea of reading as a pleasant and wonderful thing you can add to your life to reading as something that you absolutely have to have in your life.

“Reading is not optional.”

More information about the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature is available here.


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