To Do Well In Life, You Have To 'Read Well'

Author Walter Dean Myers is the nation's latest ambassador for young people's literature. The two-year post is something like a youth version of poet laureate. As a young man in Harlem, Myers hid his books so no one would know he liked to read. David Greene talks to Myers about his appointment and what he wants to accomplish.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Today, author Walter Dean Myers is being sworn-in at the Library of Congress as the nation's third ambassador for young people's literature. The two-year post is something like a youth version of the poet laureate. Myers wrote the bestseller "Monster." He's won numerous book awards in a career that's spanned more than 30 years and a hundred titles. He mostly writes about African-American teenagers grappling with tough issues like drug addiction, gangs and war, topics influenced by his own childhood as a high-school dropout growing up in Harlem.

I asked Walter Dean Myers about the theme of his upcoming ambassadorship, which he said is going to be: Reading Is Not Optional.

That's a pretty tough slogan to adopt as an ambassador trying to convince young people to read. Why did you choose it?

WALTER DEAN MYERS: The problem is very often books are looked upon as a wonderful adjunct to our lives. It's so nice. Books can take you to faraway places and this sort of thing. But then it all sounds as if it's something nice but not really necessary. And during my lifetime things have changed so drastically. You can't do well in life if you don't read well.

GREENE: You're saying that it's become even more important to read than when you were growing up. Well, why is that? What's changed in society?

MYERS: Well, what's changed in society, you had more industrial jobs than when I was coming up. My dad was a janitor for U.S. Radium Corporation, and he stayed there for 37 years. So he didn't read. The average working person could work in a factory but now you don't have those anymore. And not only that, but the jobs that you do have may not be around in five years.

GREENE: You know, I'm struck by this image of you as a young man walking through the streets of Harlem, hiding your books because you didn't want anyone to know that you enjoyed reading so much. And I wonder if your story was exceptional. What - is there a secret to having a young man or a young woman growing up on the tough streets, you know, getting interested in reading?

MYERS: I think it's difficult for young people to acknowledge being smart, to knowledge being a reader. I see kids who are embarrassed to read books. They're embarrassed to have people see them doing it.

One of the problems is that kids who don't read - who are not doing well in school - they know they're not doing well. And they want everyone to be in that same category.

GREENE: And so, what is your message to a kid who sort of thinks that reading might be something good, who knows that it could make their life better but they're just not feeling it?

MYERS: Well, one of the things that I want to do is to get very, very young kids being read to; kids 3 months, 4 months. If I can get every kid over the next two years, who's born, have their parents read to them or a grandparent or an uncle, or whoever read with them, it'll make a difference in the country. And what needs to happen is that the parent interacts with the child. And it doesn't have to be a long drawn-out process.

Now, my mom did not read well and she read True Romance magazines, but she read with me. And she would spend 30 minutes a day, her finger going along the page, and I learned to read. Eventually, by the time I was four and a half, she could iron and I could sit there and read the True Romance. And that was wonderful.

GREENE: Your own writing has been described as having a hard-core, hard-edged realism. And I'd like you to read an excerpt from one of your well-known books from 2001, "Monster." It was about a 16-year-old African-American who was jailed for the alleged involvement in the murder of a convenience store owner. Read a bit of that for me, if you can.

MYERS: (Reading) The best time to cry is at night when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help. That way, even if you sniffle a little, they won't hear you. If anybody knows that you are crying they'll start talking about it, and soon it'll be your turn to get beat up when the lights go out.

GREENE: And is that excerpt a teenager talking about being in prison?

MYERS: Yes. Yes. I visit prisons a lot. And I visit juvenile prisons a lot. And I'm appalled at the reading levels. You know, in New York State only 40 percent of kids in the eighth grade are reading proficient. And that's 40 percent of white kids. Black kids, it's down to about 15 percent.

GREENE: Your literature is not exactly the escapism of "Harry Potter," I think we can safely say. Why the stark reality? I guess some people would say if you're writing for teenagers, maybe you want to, you know, kind of get into their sense of imagination and not drive home the struggles of life.

MYERS: Right. What happens to these teenagers is that they reach a point in which reading becomes a challenge and only an opportunity to fail. Reading is not a pleasure for these kids. And Dr. Alfred Tatum from the University of Chicago points out that what the text has to contain is some clue about those kids' humanity; some clue about that this book is OK for him to look at.

So he wants to see characters in the book that might look like him or like his family. He wants to see a neighborhood that is like his neighborhood. Because what happens, when he gets up in the morning and he goes out from his house, and he looks around and he sees everyone who looks like - as he looks - who is unemployed, who don't have jobs - that's part of his education, too.

GREENE: Two years from now, you will finish your term as ambassador. What achievements do you hope to accomplish and look back on?

MYERS: Well, what I hope to do is to get mentoring groups involved with the community. I hope to find ways of reaching children that are not being reached today.

GREENE: Author Walter Dean Myers is being sworn in today as the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.

Mr. Ambassador, if I can call you that now, thank you so much for joining us on the program.

MYERS: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: And congratulations to you.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

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