WASHINGTON — The Library of Congress on Tuesday named Walter Dean Myers, an award-winning author, the third national ambassador for young people's literature.
Myers, who credits reading with saving him from the pitfalls of a disadvantaged upbringing, began his professional writing career in 1969 with "Where Does the Day Go?" a picture book about a father-son trip to the park. He is perhaps best known for his young adult novels, including the New York Times bestseller "Monster" and "Somewhere in the Darkness," which won multiple awards, including the Newbery Honor and the Coretta Scott King award.
He now joins the previous ambassadors, Jon Scieszka and Katherine Paterson, in their quest to promote the importance of children's books and to encourage reading among youth. Both appeared with him at a ceremony Tuesday at the Library of Congress.
His two-year term will include speaking engagements to encourage young readers. Myers chose the platform "reading is not optional" for his ambassadorship, reflecting his belief that literacy is of primal importance to youth.
Myers, 74, was raised in a foster home in New York's Harlem and dropped out of high school to join the Army.
Myers told Tuesday's audience, which included students from two Washington schools, that when problems were "filling up my life, filling up my entire head with the anxiety, I could turn to books. I could move myself away."
Now his books, which often feature youth dealing with such harsh realities as poverty and crime, have given a voice to young readers facing similar circumstances.
In his speech Tuesday, Myers recalled speaking with a man in prison who pointed out that their backgrounds were very similar. The remark caused Myers to wonder what it was that kept him from the same fate. He came to the conclusion that it was reading.
The difference, he said, was that "I could read since 5 years old and I could read well."
Paterson, the author of "Bridge to Terabithia" and other children's novels, praised Myers, saying, "Walter is a man who is speaking the language of those young people who value literature least but who need it most."
Young readers have been receptive to Myers' novels.
Crystal Faris, director of teen services in the Kansas City, Mo., public library system, said she's found his books especially popular in inner-city branches.
She noted Myers' past work with youth prisoners and said that, in his upcoming role as ambassador, "I'd like to see him continue the work he does visiting incarcerated teens and spread that throughout the country."
Sylvia Mora-Ona, an assistant director in the Miami-Dade public library system, said Myers' books often are talked about among youth.
"His books really address the issues that young people have. ... He deals with kids on their level," Mora-Ona said.
"It would be great if he could appear in different communities," she said. "With budget cuts, we can't make him appear here."
During Tuesday's inauguration ceremony, Myers encouraged parents to begin reading with children well before first grade to help close the gap in vocabulary between students who are read to and those who are not.
"There are kids that start school with a vocabulary of 3,000 words and (kids with) a vocabulary of 12,000 to 15,000 words. ... One thing I would like to do is get people reading to babies, reading to kids 6 months, 9 months, a year," Myers said.
Myers added that "reading has to become cool for boys," acknowledging Scieszka's efforts to promote reading among young men.
Scieszka, author of books that include "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales," said that the ambassador's position is a way to show young readers the variety of books on library shelves.
"(Myers and I) could not be more different writers," he said. "And I think that is such a great notion to tell kids. There is just not one way to be a writer or a reader."
About Walter Dean Myers
Noted young adult novels:
Sunrise Over Fallujah (2009)
2000 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Literature for Young Adults
Jane Addams Children's Book Award
Margaret A. Edwards Award for his contribution to young adult literature
Two-time Newbery Honor recipient
Five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award
Four-time recipient of the Coretta Scott King Honor
Two-time National Book Award finalist
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