Walter Dean Myers chosen as new YA literature ambassador

The prolific author says he hopes to convey to students that reading is a necessity, not an option.

Children's author Walter Dean Myers said of his mission as ambassador, "Children who don't read are, in the main, destined for lesser lives. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to change this."

Young adult author Walter Dean Myers was this morning named as the newest National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a position previously held by authors Jon Scieszka and Katherine Paterson.

Myers’ books are known for their darker content, often including adult language and realistic depictions of young people facing adult-sized challenges like war and involvement with crime. Myers, who has written more than 50 books and is a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for African American authors, said he thinks his choice of subject matter will help him to bring a different experience to the position than previous ambassadors, though he was quick to praise his predecessors who he says did a great job.

“I think that Jon and Katherine were admirable,” Myers told the School Library Journal. “I think that I can be riskier in what I bring to the position because of who I am, but I don't feel our message is that much different.”

Executive director of the Children’s Book Council Robin Adelson told The New York Times that she thinks the real-life focus in Myers’ books will make kids relate to him.

“I think part of what makes him such a great choice for this post is that his writing is a little bit of everything,” Adelson said. “There’s this interest in history and this deep knowledge of history in Walter’s writing. Then there’s this definite hard-core, hard-edged realism.”

Former ambassador Scieszka says he thinks Myers will have no problem attracting kids’ attention.

“He has such a presence when he speaks, he just commands a room,” the author told Publishers Weekly. “Little kids, big kids, adults – everyone sits up when he starts speaking. He’s like a combination of Darth Vader and Pat the Bunny.”

As ambassador, Myers will travel around America and stop at libraries as well as schools to talk to students and encourage them to read.

"’Reading is not an Option!’ is my platform,” he told the School Library Journal. “As a young man, I saw families prosper without reading because there were always sufficient opportunities for willing workers who could follow simple instructions. This is no longer the case. Children who don't read are, in the main, destined for lesser lives. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to change this.”

A committee chooses an author for the position of ambassador, which was created in 2008. Members of the committee are selected by the Center of the Book in the Library of Congress and an organization associated with the Children’s Book Council titled Every Child a Reader. An author holds the job for two years.

Myers is scheduled to be awarded a medal in Washington D.C. at the Library of Congress next week. During the ceremony, he will officially accept the job of ambassador. 

Myers, who dropped out of high school at 17 to join the army, began publishing mystery stories in magazines after he returned home from military service. He then submitted the winning entry for a contest to write a picture book. He is now best known for books including “Sunrise Over Fallujah,” which was released in 2009, and “Monster,” which came out in 2001. He has received the Michael L. Printz Award and was a three-time National Book Award finalists, in addition to having won two Newbery Honors and other awards.

Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.

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