inReads Interview with Walter Dean Myers
February 27, 2012 by Jada.Bradley
Walter Dean Myers is the third National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and he follows Jon Scieczka and Katherine Paterson in taking on this post to promote reading among our nation’s youth. The Library of Congress names the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for a two-year term.
A prolific author of books for young people, Myers has written more than 100 books and show no signs of stopping. He continues to write and sometimes collaborates with youngest son, illustrator Christopher Myers. His award-winning body of work includes Sunrise Over Fallujah, Angels, Monster, Somewhere in the Darkness, Harlem and Scorpions. Myers has received two Newbery Honor Awards and five Coretta Scott King Awards. He is the winner of the first Michael L Printz Award (for excellence in young adult literature, given by the American Library Association) as well as the first recipient of Kent State University’s Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Myers often writes about kids in tough situations because he understands what they have been through. In his memoir, Bad Boy, he tells of growing up poor in Harlem and being quick to fight, but also of how he constantly read books from the library that he hid from his peers to avoid ridicule. Myers dropped out of high school and joined the army at the age of 17, but he never forgot how much he enjoyed reading and the high school teacher who encouraged him to write.
inReads: Will you talk a little about your platform as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature? How did you decide on that theme?
Walter Dean Myers: I want to make the conversation more serious. We talk about reading, about young people reading, but we give them mixed messages. We say reading will enhance your life and make your life more pleasant. “Books will take you to faraway places” makes reading sound optional. So many kids don’t read and [they] face hard lives. It’s not about faraway places—either you read or you’re going to suffer.
I like opera—to me that is optional. Going to the theater is optional. Reading is not optional.
I’m also getting the feeling that in the African-American community, which I am a part of, we are allowing children too much leeway. I get letters saying, ‘reading is boring, but I like your books.’ Is breathing boring? We have the wrong attitude. I get somewhat emotional about this.
inReads: Part of your platform as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature is to stress that parents read WITH their children. What would you say to a parent who says he/she doesn’t have time?
Myers: I know I’m not going to be able to convince each person. It’s like you say people should exercise; everybody knows that. I was in McDonald’s the other day and I saw these huge people. We have allowed the condition of being overweight to happen. We know what we shouldn’t do, but we still do it.
What I want to do is try to change not the individuals but the environment. Once that environment changes and people begin to pay attention, then it will happen.
Once I was racing [comedian and activist] Dick Gregory. He could fly. He was a nationally known miler, but I didn’t know that. I asked how much he ran and he told me 3 miles a day when he was fasting and 6 miles when he wasn’t fasting.
He said changing clothes, running, showering, and changing again took him 2 hours.
He told me something that changed me: “If you cannot spend 2 hours a day doing something for yourself, you need to reconsider what you’re living for.”
Get into the habit of reading with a child 30 minutes a day. Not everyday, but 4 or 5 times a week. Children look forward to spending the time with you and you will look forward to being with your child.
You need to make the investment if you want to results. That’s hard to present to people, but it’s true. There’s no pill you can take.
inReads: You and your mother read magazines to each other when you were young. In your position as ambassador, will you encourage young people to read magazines (paper and online) or will you mainly focus on books?
Myers: I will focus on reading overall. My mom could not read well. She used to read with her finger [pointing out the words]. She read True Romance because that’s what she liked. My stepsisters read comic books and she would read those to me. I so enjoyed reading that I picked it up early on.
I see people reading catalogs with their kids. You can read supermarket brochures. Then take your child to the supermarket and have them find the food.
inReads: What do you think about e-readers? Do you use one?
Myers: I have one. I use it for old books that aren’t in print, things from Project Gutenberg. I read a lot of old books that are sort of esoteric…you can’t get them easily. My wife downloads new books. I work at home and I don’t travel, so I don’t use it much.
I think e-readers will be useful. I think all the technology will be good. I think e-books will help. One thing is the price. First Book, for example, gets books to kids [at no cost]. I also think in a couple of years tablets will cost nothing…well not nothing, but the prices will go way down.
inReads: What do you think about electronic reading devices with sounds and images designed for young people?
Myers: If a parent is interested in reading, they will pass that on to a child. You can’t [just] stick the kid in front of Sesame Street or go out and buy books.
My father couldn’t read and write. When my son came along, my son said I was just like grandpa. My father was a janitor and he had no education. I thought I was nothing like him at all. It turns out that his values are my values. Whatever my parents did, that’s what I do. My mother read to me in her halting way—I picked that up. My father’s work ethic—I picked that up.
And it doesn’t have to be a parent; it can be an uncle or foster parent or whoever.
Once at a reading, a woman and her great-grandson recited a poem I wrote, Better Not Mess with Me and My Grandmama. I was really touched. It meant they were sharing a book and that was going to have a great impact on the boy.
Parents have a greater impact than how wonderful the book is.
inReads: How has publishing books for young readers changed since you were first published?
Myers: When I was first in publishing, the market was libraries; then it was bookstores. When it was bookstores, they were looking for quick turnover—things like some of those vampire books.
Now it’s changing again. The market is changing to the school market. I see that from my royalty statements.
Also, who is buying the books is changing. In the 1970s it was librarians. When the market was aiming for librarians, there were few Blacks and Latinos. Now the market is schools, you’re finding more educators, more people of color. Teachers are influencing book buying and they are going to influence who will be published. They’re looking for books that are relevant to their lives and the lives of their students.
inReads: What are you reading now?
Myers: I’m reading Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez.
I’m also reading a book about defending the Normandy coast written from the point of view of German soldiers. I’m working on a book for teenagers about WWII and I want a picture of WWII that isn’t just American soldiers. I want to show how tragic it was for everyone.
inReads: Will you travel a lot as ambassador?
Myers: I’ll be traveling some. I hope not to travel more than once or twice a month; I don’t want to give up the writing. Still, I’m very passionate about getting kids reading.
I visited a Catholic school in Harlem and an 8 year old boy who had asked me about my plans as for my role as ambassador told me, “If you play your cards right, you can make it last.”
About The Author:
Jada Bradley (jadabradley.com) is a Washington DC-based writer and educator who enjoys telling stories in formal and informal ways. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and online. She holds Masters in Spanish Translation and is a great supporter of creative expression in the various forms it takes. She also writes about local cultural events as D.C. Cultural Events Examiner for Examiner.com. Her blog, In Other Words, can be found at inotherwordz.blogspot.com.