As the third national ambassador for young people’s literature, a position created by the Library of Congress in 2007, Walter Dean Myers loves to “get people to yell at me.”
In his first month on the job, Myers is perhaps less diplomatic than his predecessor—National Book Award winner Katherine Paterson—and his novels are more “hard-hitting,” says Robin Adelson, executive director of the Children’s Book Council.
A high-school dropout and former street tough, the 74-year-old writer isn’t messing around. His admonition to young people—“Reading is not optional”—may seem to gloss over the social ills afflicting minority communities, especially African-Americans. But no one is better acquainted with the reality of gangs, poverty, drug addiction, and a culture hostile to reading than the bluff and philosophizing Myers, a creature of 1940s New York City.
Born in Martinsburg, W.Va., in 1937, Myers was, “for some strange reason … given to a man named Herbert Dean who lived in Harlem,” he writes on his website. “I consider it strange because I don’t know why I was given away.”
His father worked for 37 years as a janitor at the now-defunct U.S. Radium Corp., while his mother—who was part German and part Native American—read with him for 30 minutes each morning, her finger running along the page. By the time he was 5, Myers read issues of True Romance magazine by himself while his mother did the ironing.
But in Harlem, Myers’s predilection for books—which he hid from his friends—was an oddity that exposed him to ridicule and humiliation. And at the renowned Stuyvesant High School, his refuge from the streets, Myers felt alienated by the curriculum’s veneration of the Founding Fathers, whose late 18th-century egalitarian vision did not extend to America’s underclass of slaves.
“None of the things I read had values that I could identify with,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Jersey City, N.J. “There was old George Washington and the white horse, Thomas Jefferson and all those guys… but nothing black and nothing about my neighborhood or my family.
“I was a good student, but somewhere along the line, I decided I wouldn’t be black anymore,” he added. “I was going to be an intellectual; I was going to be above this whole question of race.”
His adolescent bout of spiritual malaise coincided with the murder of his uncle, an ex-convict, a tragedy that prompted Myers’s alcoholic mother to “really go off the deep end,” he says.
“I realized that I couldn’t go to college. In fact, my family couldn’t even afford to send me to high school [anymore] because I didn’t have lunch money. If I couldn’t go to college, why finish high school? That was the [reasoning] of my 15-year-old self.”
Myers dropped out of Stuyvesant and began a 25-year odyssey: He joined the Army at age 17, stuffed envelopes on Wall Street, and worked as a “sledgehammer man” for a construction company. His scripture during this period was George Orwell’s 1933 Down and Out in Paris and London, a romanticization of destitution. At some point, however, the extent of his self-marginalization became clear. “I remember saying to myself, ‘This sucks.’”
In the years that followed, Myers wrote more than 100 books and accrued an embarrassment of riches, including two Newbery Honor Book Awards, five Coretta Scott King Awards, and the first Michael J. Printz Award. He is also a three-time finalist for the National Book Award.
By and large, his works are a faithful portrait of life on the streets, and as such, are shot through with obscene language. This has rankled some school administrators, and three of Myers’s books—Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff; Hoops; and Fallen Angels—have been targeted for removal from school lists. But his coarse prose has won plaudits as well. Monster—a genre-busting best-seller about a black 16-year-old unjustly accused of murdering the owner of a convenience store—is regarded by critics as a master street novel.
First and foremost on his agenda as national ambassador for young people’s literature is abolishing the stigma attached to reading. “I think it’s difficult for young people to acknowledge being smart, to acknowledge reading books,” he says.
His second objective is to alert the political establishment and the public at large to an epidemic that, if it were measles, “would be in every newspaper,” he says. A frequent visitor to juvenile-detention centers, he bemoans the fact that most young inmates “have a tiny, little vocabulary, a smattering of prison jargon.”
Unbeknownst to the political elite, Myers says, “many, many kids can’t read for crap.”
This article appears in the Feb. 9, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.