- Faith & Family
Walter Dean Myers, 74, has taken on a most difficult task — persuading America’s youth to believe that reading is not just a pastime in which one indulges whenever they have a spare moment. Rather, the nationally-acclaimed author and five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award hopes to show that reading is vital to any young person’s future. In his new position as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature he will be criss-crossing the U.S. to push a sobering message: “Reading is Not Optional.”
“For the next two years I hope to carry my message everywhere until it resonates in the hearts of every American, especially our Black youth,” he said. “Reading should not be viewed as an adjunct to one’s life — it should be central. What makes this such a daunting task is making our youth believe what I say and having them and adults take me seriously.”
Myers, who has also been awarded with two Newberry Honors, is referred to as a “lifelong advocate for reading for young people who practices what he preaches in schools and detention centers across the country.” He says the sad truth is that young people no longer read — at least not nearly as much as they did years ago.
“When we look at reading proficiency in the U.S., statistics indicate that 40 percent of white children read at the accepted minimum level but Blacks and Hispanics only read at 15 percent,” he said. “The result is that these kids are facing less of a life with fewer chances to succeed. This is not a joke and the problem is not going away. What we face is a national crisis. We can’t just let our children slide or be promoted when they cannot read. It’s almost like a child that is obese. We often don’t want to tell them that they have a problem but we know that there will be real challenges in their future if their situation goes unchecked.”
Myers has published more than 100 books including the New York Times “Monster” which was chosen as the Coretta Scott King Honor Book as well as a National Book Award Finalist and the Michael L. Printz Award.
“When I go into detention centers I am dealing with kids that 9/10 times cannot read — a large percentage of the adults can’t read either,” he said. “That means that these non-readers are locked out of any kind of educational opportunity that might come their way.”
Who’s to blame? Myers says we all have played a role in the failure of today’s youth by lowering our expectations.
“It’s important to make reading a non-threatening concept,” he said. “My mother was not very well educated so she read romance novels and magazines to me when I was a child. It doesn’t matter what a child reads — my mother made me a reader. And I read to my two boys when they were growing up.
“Also, there’s no point in blaming any one person or group. The thing is we have to admit that we have a nationwide problem that has a crisis level in some communities. Then we need to start showing our youth that reading is not only okay, but it is fun and often quite meaningful. That means changing our culture and the mindset associated with readings, especially in the Black community.”
By D. Kevin McNeir