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The Children’s Book Ambassador’s Platform: Reading is Not Optional

By Dennis Abrams

Walter Dean Myers, five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, two-time recipient of Newbery Honors (for 1989’s Scorpions and 1993’s Somewhere in the Darkness) among countless other awards and citations was inaugurated as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington on January 10 in a ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Myers will serve in the position during the remainder of 2012 and 2013, succeeding Katherine Paterson.

Walter Dean Myers’ National Ambassador Inaugural Ceremony from The Children's Book Council on Vimeo.

(Note, Walter Dean Meyer’s begins speaking at 32:50 minutes in the video)

The 74-year-old Myers — author of more than 100 published books including picture books, lyric poetry, fantasy, biography – is perhaps best known for realistic fiction that takes an unflinching look at the lives of America’s urban poor. It’s a life he knew all to well growing up in Harlem, which makes the platform he’s chosen for himself, “Reading Is Not Optional” all the more personal and urgent.

In an interview, Myers told the New York Times, “I was teased if I brought my books home. I would take a paper bag to the library and put the books in the bag and bring them home.  Not that I was that concerned about them teasing me – because I would hit them in a heartbeat.  But I felt a little ashamed, having books.”

And it is that feeling shared by so many urban youth that he hopes to help overcome. Myers told PW, “We all know we should eat right and we should exercise, but reading is treated as if it’s this wonderful adjunct. Reading takes you to faraway places. We’re still thinking in terms of enticing kids to read with a sports book or a book about war. We’re suggesting that they’re missing something if they don’t read but, actually, we’re condemning kids to a lesser life. If you had a sick patient, you would not entice them to take their medicine. You would tell them, ‘Take this or you’re going to die.’ We need to tell kids flat out: reading is not optional.”

Myers hopes that because of who he is and what he writes about, he will be able to speak directly to low-income minority parents. He told the NYT, “You take a black man who doesn’t have a job, but you say to him, ‘Look, you can make a difference in your child’s life, just by reading to him for 30 minutes a day.’ That’s what I’d like to do.”

The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council (CBC), and Every Child a Reader, the CBC foundation, are the founders and cosponsors of the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature initiative. “Walter Dean Myers is a wonderful storyteller and authentic voice,” said Robin Adelson, executive director of the Children’s Book Council and Every Child a Reader. “His pioneering novels are hard-hitting and, at the same time, deliver a powerful sense of hope and dignity, and we believe he will do the same as the next ambassador.”

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  1. Posted February 15, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    We lament the diminishment of reading, and yet I’ll bet very little school time is actually devoted to reading in our public educational system. I for one wish that all kids could be allowed to read for 30-45 minutes or more IN SCHOOL every day!

    On top of that, I think kids should be permitted to choose their reading material, whether a book, a magazine, a graphic novel– anything with words–for this reading time. Or, perhaps there could be an audio book that a class could “read” together half an hour a day.

    By becoming better readers, our children will be better at learning absolutely everything.

    There! There’re my two cents.

    Hurray for Myers, the CBC, the Center for the Book, and the CBC foundation for supporting reading!

  2. Posted February 15, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Your message about reading not being an option is too true! Yet we treat it as such, particularly regarding boys. Thank you so much for using your current position as more than simply added prestige, but a job to be done.

  3. Posted February 15, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    This is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen/heard on social media or from Publishing Perspectives. You may wonder at what I consider exciting in my life. Well, reading and books are exciting. I so enjoyed listening to everyone speaking about reading. I was beginning to think no one cared anymore, or that people were just overwhelmed by technology. Yes, technology has brought this to me. More asotunding for me is that I had a clipping from one our local newspapers (March 2011) on Walter Dean Myers – I kept it in case I came across any of his books. Then here I am, discovering he is now the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature! I was inspired by his address and reassured. Reading is not optional! Indeed! I thank you for posting this.
    Diane Browne

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