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Books Changed His Life

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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.

Comments (11)

  1. Even in the face of such sad news, Myers’ words uplift us and inspire us. The challenge continues. He has left it to us – still reading – to care for, nourish, and support the learn-in-to-read around us – children and parents. Could he have left us any greater legacy?

  2. Extraordinary and excellent commment above from Mr. Walter Myers. I am quite sure that Mr. Myers is an example of decency and a life fulfilled with magnificiant experiencies.
    Today kids don’t read anymore. Or very few do so… It is the modern times of virtual things e cell phones… I am not against all these new toys for kids… Indead, we must start at home, making our children listening the “stories” of so many books that were written for such endless times…
    I am sad of his departing, but soon or later each one of us, do go… Farewell Mr. Myers and thank’s for your work
    (Sorry for any mistake on my writting)

  3. A True Story

    It was a beautiful summer afternoon in Brooklyn, New York. My teenage daughter, her girlfriend and I were reading on the stoop. A curious little girl who was visiting her grandmother for the holidays crossed the street and wanted to join us. I asked her how old she was and what grade she would be attending in September.

    I went inside my home and returned to the stoop with a first grade reader. I handed the book to the child and asked her to read out loud for me. She had great difficulty reading that book. I asked her if she wanted me to help prepare her for the 1st grade. She enthusiastically said, “Yes!”

    To my surprise, everyday for the entire summer that child would ring my bell. “I am ready to read,” she would say with a smile. I made flash cards and we would sit outside and practice and read.

    We had so much fun reading, writing, and playing other children on the block wanted to participate.

    The little girl’s family moved somewhere down South. I never saw her again. I often wonder about her. Is she still excited about learning? Is she reading on grade level? Does she have an educational support system? We have an obligation to make sure children read and learn.

  4. I have been an avid reader since I was a child. I subscribe to various periodicals and have many diversified interests. I hope that I can retain my eyesight for many more years to come.

    Books are interesting, informative and educational and can take you to parts unknown – all from the seat of an armchair.

    A quote from my high school yearbook: “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”

  5. This is sad. He sounds like a powerful man with a vision and a determination to make a difference. Lets hope his legacy lives on. His message was good and clear.

  6. Have Books on Tape (or CD) been studied in the alternative?

  7. I “met” Mr. Myers through his book “Monster” which I read for a library school class. That book is, and probably always will be, in my all-time top ten list. I recommend it to adults and teens constantly. What great literature. RIP, Mr. Myers.

  8. It warmed my heart to read this and I immediately began to think about how I
    should help. I thought of my young grandchildren who are avid readers because of their parents. I won’t forget Walter Dean Myers.

  9. My parents were not readers, but I had a grandmother that started me on the path to a lifelong love of reading. Every time we went to my grandparents farm we would read together. I still have some of the tattered and worn books she read to me. Then during my junior high school years I had a teacher who read to us every day. I still remember the good feelings and the love of reading she conveyed. As an adult with children of my own I read to my children and grandchildren. Today they are still avid readers. I cannot imagine a day without reading!! We must encourage all those we come in contact to read…read…read.

  10. He was gentle, thoughtful, and an ambassador for children, children’s potential, and children’s literature in the deepest sense. My condolences to his family, with gratitude for him and his gifts.

  11. I really enjoyed this article, and it brought home to me, my struggles, with reading. I didn’t learn to read and write until I was in my 40″s and after going to a Lawbok Reading program, I now read everything that I can get my hands on. I have quite a story to tell. I would to thank you, Jennifer, for writing this article.

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