I got a chill listening to Walter Dean Myers describe the decline in literacy he has witnessed in his decades of working with incarcerated males. It used to be, he said in his keynote address at SLJ’s Day of Dialog in June, that he could tell what grade kids were in by the quality of the writing in their letters to him, but not anymore. He would also see kids in detention who were functionally illiterate, but now he sees more and more adults in prison who can’t read at all.
This tragedy is most pressing where people are suffering in “pockets of language poverty,” Myers noted, exacerbated by high and long-lasting unemployment. When parents don’t work, he added, kids lose the secondary benefit of casual access to workplace words. Each word counts. Just hearing the technical terms that are part of any job enriches a child’s worldview. Each word enables a connection to the next and a visualization of a place where things happen beyond the familiar daily environment. Each feeds the energy of the imagination. Each helps build a vision of a potential future.
Increasingly, kids are not getting the words they need to see and strive for a better future—much less take joy in reading a transporting story, or writing one. Worse yet, Myers argued, our society glosses over both the problem of a growing illiteracy rate and a rising incarceration rate because of who is affected: it is poor people who suffer most. “One of the biggest problems is that we don’t talk about it,” he said.
Myers, the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, grew up underprivileged in Harlem. “I came out through literature,” he said. It offered a “different worldview that I could use beyond my own misery. And eventually that different worldview took over.”
I imagine Myers would like to meet a young man Jonathan Kozol refers to as Jeremy (in this month’s cover story, “The Other America”). Jeremy grew up in Mott Haven, which Kozol calls “the poorest section in all of the South Bronx.” He was a smart kid and ended up making it to a top college. Key to his escape: a steady stream of interesting reading provided by a neighborhood poet. A good school librarian also helped build his capacity when he made it to a better school in 10th grade.
Kozol, who revisits the kids of Mott Haven in his new book, Fire in the Ashes, echoes Myers when it comes to what we need to do to help all children learn to read and gain the ability to make their own lives. They agree that we have to put more good books into kids’ hands. They agree that school and public libraries are essential to getting it done right.
Parents are key, too. Of those children behind in reading when they enter school, Myers said, “only 15 percent catch up. If they don’t, they won’t be readers. We have to take the leap of faith that parents will read to their kids. If we don’t, we have to accept the world we will inherit.”
As a society, Kozol argues, we simply haven’t mustered the political will to care enough about the kids who are at risk to focus real resources on the problem.
Myers’s description of how new words enable a child to imagine a world beyond his or her immediate surroundings gave me new insight into the power of each word a child learns. Where those words cease to flow, the world closes in. On the flip side, the world opens for children who are exposed to words, stories, and the imaginations of others by reading.
For those in libraries, this is obvious and essential to our work. Literacy gaps (including digital literacy) are unforgivable in a nation as wealthy as ours. We can look to the kids who succeeded because they were inspired about reading and learning and celebrate those who transcended their environments. Then we must give all kids, no matter where they come from, the many words they need to see and build a better future for themselves.
Rebecca T. Miller