Award-winning children's author Walter Dean Myers, 76, has met famous people in his lifetime, like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. These days, the New York Times-best-selling writer is on a mission to meet children from low-income backgrounds. He's encouraging them to read as he travels across the country as the 2012 Ambassador for Young People's Literature. It's a role that brought Myers to Kalamazoo this summer.
Myers told WMUK's Earlene McMichael that he is focusing his efforts on less affluent children because "we tend to dismiss these kids." He adds that:
“We can’t afford NOT to try to bring these kids to the grand American picture.”
In his own life, Myers, who was raised by foster parents in Harlem, N.Y., says he faced poverty and a difficult childhood himself so he understands what children from economically depressed homes face. Myers says even parents with limited education can help their children learn to read. He explains that his foster father was functionally illiterate and his mother read at about a third-grade level, yet Myers got read to in his household.
"What (my mother) read was 'true romance' magazines, almost exclusively, and I would sit there with her," Myers says. "And she was not thinking that she was teaching me something. It was just a pastime that she liked. And so, what I say to people is that you have a gift to give your children. You don't have to be highly educated."
Myers says it's more than schools that help children grasp literacy skills. He says the community also plays a role in the education of children. He says it is imperative that kids know how to read if they wish to succeed in life, noting that reading is "not optional." He adds: "It's like playing in the NFL and saying, 'Well, I'm not a physical person but I will play.' No, you won't."
Students unable to read are at risk of having a narrow understanding of what's going on around them, Myers says. "When people don't read, they create not only a language gap -- which is clearly recognizable and which holds them back in life -- but there's a knowledge gap that is stunning." He has run across kids who know little about the last 50 years. Says Myers: "They ask me questions like, 'When the Vietnam War happened, how did your brother get there? Did he take a bus?' They don't know where Vietnam is. They can't find it on a map. These things hurt kids."
On his work as an author, Myers says he tries to write about things he knows and people he cares about. He says those are the type of stories he would have liked to have read as a kid, especially as one who is African-American like himself.
"We don't very often write about the inner-city's children. We don't often write about poor kids of ANY race," the author says. "Nobody writes about these children. When they pick up a book, they are not going to find themselves." Myers says most children's books depict a middle-class lifestyle, but there ought to be some as well as that are "inclusive of all Americans." He believes every child will benefit when what they read portrays youngsters of color as "complete human beings" and "not just athletes and entertainers."
Myers says he doesn't have a strategy of writing to interest kids. He says what keeps him going is that he loves writing.
"I get up every morning anxious to get to my computer," he says.
Earlene McMichael spoke to Walter Dean Myers before his visit to the Kalamazoo Public Library in August. See a video of Myers speaking at the library. The National Ambassador to Young People's Literature program, which was created in 2008, is run by Every Child a Reader, a non-profit organization that promotes literacy and reading. The initiative is in partnership with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress and the Children's Book Council, a publisher's trade group.