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Author Walter Dean Myers Says ‘Reading Is Not Optional’ for Kids

July 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Walter Dean Myers is the award-winning author of over 100 books, written especially for young adults and children. His goal: to get more children reading. Jeffrey Brown reports on how reading and writing saved helped Myers as a child and his current role as Library Of Congress' National Ambassador For Young People's Literature.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: one man’s need to write, and a society’s need to read.

Jeffrey Brown talks with author and advocate Walter Dean Myers.

WALTER DEAN MYERS: I was raised where?

CHILD: In Harlem.

WALTER DEAN MYERS: Yes, I was raised in Harlem.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, on this day, it was to Harlem that author Walter Dean Myers returned. At 74, Myers is the Library of Congress’ national ambassador for young people’s literature, the first African-American to hold the post.

He had come to his old neighborhood to talk with second graders at St. Aloysius School about his life at a writer and the need to read, something Myers’ own father never learned to do.

CHILD: How did you feel that you didn’t — you didn’t know that your father couldn’t read? Did you feel bad?

WALTER DEAN MYERS: Actually, it’s a funny thing, because he had died. Then, I discovered he couldn’t read. But what happened, during his lifetime, he never praised my books. He never said anything good about my books.

And so, I felt bad about that. I thought he didn’t like them. And I was too embarrassed to ask him. So, when I found out he couldn’t read, I really felt bad, because I could have taught him how to read.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what do you get out of coming to a school like this?

WALTER DEAN MYERS: Well, it reminds me of why I’m writing and…

JEFFREY BROWN: Why you’re writing?

WALTER DEAN MYERS: Why I’m writing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

WALTER DEAN MYERS: It validates what I’m doing. And then it — I realize I’m giving the kids something. And what I’m doing is, I’m telling them that their lives are worthwhile.

JEFFREY BROWN: Myers is author of more than 100 novels, biographies and other books for young adults and children, some of the latter illustrated by his son Christopher. Altogether, his works have sold more than a million copies and frequently focus on the gritty side of city life, one that he’s lived and knows still from visits to detention centers and prisons, as well as schools around the country.

The bestselling novel “Monster,” for example, is about a Harlem teen jailed as an accomplice in a murder. “Hoops” features a young basketball player whose coach gambles on their championship game. A new book, “Just Write: Here’s How!,” tells of Myers’ own troubles in and out of school, how reading and write saved him, and how they can help others too.

You have taken this new role as ambassador for young people’s literature. But it — I read about your life and it seems as though that’s a role that you sort of assigned yourself a long time ago.

WALTER DEAN MYERS: Yes. I have always been interested in people, young people reading.

And I see the — you know, when I go to the juvenile detention centers and prisons, I see people who can’t read now. And I know that when they leave those prisons and those detention centers, they’re not going to be able to make it in our society. I’m also old enough to know that reading has changed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Changed in what way?

WALTER DEAN MYERS: Well, it’s changed in that, when I was young, there were many, many people who could go out and get a job in a factory or they could get a job doing some sort of physical work and make a good living, or at least a good enough living to make it.

Now you can’t do that. Even the job that you think is pretty good today may not be around in five years. So, you have to be able to read. It’s not like it’s a nice thing to do or a funny adjunct. It’s essential.

JEFFREY BROWN: Growing up, Myers says he always loved reading, but found few examples of kids like him in books. His own path took many turns.

He dropped out of high school, joined the Army and worked a variety of jobs. Eventually, he started writing in off-hours.

When you were growing up — and you write about this — the idea of being a writer, that one could make a living and be a writer was sort of unheard of in your background.

WALTER DEAN MYERS: It was completely unheard of.

But I liked to write. I couldn’t speak well. I went to speech therapy for 10 years. And I was sort of frustrated in that sense. But I found that I loved reading and I liked writing stories. I never thought of making a living at it. I never thought about making a living at writing.

I didn’t even know for years that people ever even got paid for this, because they don’t teach you that in school. They don’t say Shakespeare got a check.

(LAUGHTER)

WALTER DEAN MYERS: Or Shelley was getting royalties. They don’t tell you that. They talk — they make it sound as if these guys were geniuses and they were above money.

JEFFREY BROWN: The speech impediment, also something you write about, being laughed at as a child.

WALTER DEAN MYERS: Luckily, I was big.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that meant what, getting into fights?

WALTER DEAN MYERS: I got into many, many fights.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

WALTER DEAN MYERS: And, many, I would start. I would start the fights because someone would smile. They could be smiling at anything, but I thought they were laughing at me. And so, I would be very aggressive.

JEFFREY BROWN: The young adult novels that you perhaps are best known for now are tough stuff. You’re looking at some real, tough issues in the lives of young people, right?

WALTER DEAN MYERS: They’re tough issues. They’re tough issues.

I started writing sports. When I was first writing, I was writing sports, I was writing adventure, I was writing mysteries. But then, I began going to prisons. I began to realize that these guys had families.

Who is raising your kids? Then I began going to juvenile prisons. And some of these kids face some very, very tough lives. How do they handle these lives? Do they even know that if their life is bad, that they’re still OK? Do they know that? Do they know that someone is thinking the same way that they’re thinking?

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, a lot of people, I suppose, would think, is this the stuff for young people’s — for young people to read, you know, to read about prison and drugs and poverty?

WALTER DEAN MYERS: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why not give them something more positive?

WALTER DEAN MYERS: Well, the most positive thing I can give them is their own presence, acknowledging them, you know, if I say to a kid, you are a human being that I understand, that I’m not going to excuse your — if you have done a crime, I’m not going to excuse your crime, but I know where you are coming from. I know that you feel and that you’re thinking.

And that’s — I need to do that. I need to write that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And keep writing, he will. This spring, Myers published his latest novel, “All the Right Stuff,” set again in Harlem. It tells story of a young man trying to find direction in his life.

In the meantime, Myers will continue to proselytize in his role as a reading ambassador — his mantra, he says, “Reading is not optional.”