As a kid growing up in Harlem, Walter Dean Myers admits he often led with his fists and struggled academically before dropping out of high school at 17 to join the army. But in the decades since he’s proved to be a master at using words to make his case – a skill that will be in high demand as he becomes the nation’s third Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
Myers, 74, will formally accept the position in a ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. on January 10. He succeeds Katherine Paterson, who has served since 2010.
“I imagine myself on one knee with a sword,” said Myers in a telephone interview from his home in Jersey City, N.J. “It’s exciting. It’s a chance to stand up and say publicly what I’ve been saying privately. There is a crisis involving reading in certain communities.”
Myers’s international reputation rests on a body of work that is big, bold, and varied – picture books, lyric poetry, fantasy, biography, and, perhaps most notably, realistic fiction that does not blink when it comes to depicting the lives of America’s urban poor. It’s the needs of those teens, in particular, that Myers plans to focus on during his two-year term as ambassador.
“We all know we should eat right and we should exercise, but reading is treated as if it’s this wonderful adjunct. ‘Reading takes you to faraway places,’ ” Myers said. “We’re still thinking in terms of enticing kids to read with a sports book or a book about war. We’re suggesting that they’re missing something if they don’t read but, actually, we’re condemning kids to a lesser life. If you had a sick patient, you would not try to entice them to take their medicine. You would tell them, ‘Take this or you’re going to die.’ We need to tell kids flat out: reading is not optional.”
Born in West Virginia and raised by foster parents in Harlem in the 1940s, Myers stayed in school long enough to meet a teacher who told him he could write. (“Bless her,” he has said.) Since the release of his first picture book in 1969 (Where Does the Day Go?) his output has been prolific. He released five books last year alone.
The quality of that work has not gone unnoticed. Think of an award given to a work for young readers and Myers has won it: two Newbery Honors, three National Book Award finalists, winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award, the Michael L. Printz Award, and five Coretta Scott King Awards.
The National Ambassador program, sponsored by the Library of Congress and the Children’s Book Council, was established in 2008 with the naming of Jon Scieszka for the first two-year term. Candidates are selected based on their contribution to young people’s literature and their ability to relate to children.
Of Myers, said Scieszka, “He has such a presence when he speaks, he just commands a room,” “Little kids, big kids, adults – everyone sits up when he starts speaking. He’s like a combination of Darth Vader and Pat the Bunny.”
The ambassador's role is to raise national awareness about the importance of young people's literature in getting young readers off to a good start. Scieszka commented, “There probably are not three writers whose work is more dissimilar than mine, Katherine’s and Walter’s, but there are all kinds of ways to be a writer because there are all kinds of readers out there. Although it's fun to see those places where we do overlap. Both Walter and I have memoirs about growing up. And Katherine’s way funnier than most people know.”