The Library of Congress has just named Walter Dean Myers the third National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, and I couldn't be happier. The author of picture books, novels, nonfiction and poetry, his writing career spans almost 50 years. He has touched and changed countless lives, including mine.
Read more books by Walter Dean Myers at Kirkus.
The position was created, according to the Library of Congress website, "to raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of the lives of young people"—a goal I am obviously completely in accord with. The more prominence given to the necessity of placing great books in the hands of young people the better, I say, and one can't get much more prominent than an ambassador.
Myers follows Ambassador emeritus Jon Scieszka and Ambassador emerita Katherine Paterson, both spectacular authors and advocates for young people's literature, and he will spend his two-year term crisscrossing the country, speaking to audiences of all ages about the importance of books and reading in the lives of children and teens. He has adopted as the slogan for his platform, "Reading Is Not Optional."
This urgency and passion is entirely consonant with Myers' approach to literature. As a teen, reading kept him sane, as he wrote in his memoir Bad Boy. Though he never finished high school or went to college, his self-directed education through books has led to an enormous body of work, much of which has both garnered critical praise and won major awards, including the Printz and Coretta Scott King Awards and two Newbery Honors.
I had the privilege of meeting Myers a number of years ago, and he shared with me his frustration with well-intentioned librarians and our efforts to engage children with books. Librarians tell children, he said, that reading will take them to wonderful places and on exciting adventures. No, he insisted. "Reading is survival." Frederick Douglass didn't learn to read to go on fanciful journey—he did it in order to survive.
As one of those wonderful-adventure librarians, I was humbled and inspired. Why hadn't I gone beyond escape to what, at bottom, is so vital about literacy? I'm not sure I entirely abandoned the allure of reading-as-escape in my conversations with children, but I know that I always keep Myers' naked urgency in mind as I work to connect kids with books.
Myers speaks of his plans to use his new position to take his message to low-income and minority parents. I can't imagine a better person for the job. Lucky us to have him on our side.
Vicky Smith is the children's and teen books editor at Kirkus.