April 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

SLJ’s 2012 Day of Dialog: Walter Dean Myers Vows to Close the Reading Gap

Our nation faces a huge reading gap—but most people are unwilling to talk about it because the bulk of illiterate kids are minority and poor, says Walter Dean Myers.

The award-winning author explains that’s one of the main reasons he accepted the role as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in January—to publicize the problem.

During his many visits to juvenile detention centers over the years, Myers met kids who were functionally illiterate. “Not kids who were uninterested, but kids who could not read.”

The keynote speaker at SLJ‘s 2012 Day of Dialog spoke to a rapt room of attendees about his own personal experience growing up poor in New York City’s Harlem. By 13, his life began to unravel with his uncle’s murder . Myers’s dad sunk into a deep depression and his mother began drinking again to cope. The young Myers once had to lift his drunk mother off the sidewalk and carry her home.

“I was devastated,” he says. “But it’s not something you can tell your teacher about.” Around the same time, Myers became a knife-wielding gang member, who guarded an older teen. But there’s one thing he credits for helping him choose a different path.

“I found literature,” says the 74year-old award-winning author, who as a child would visit the George Bruce branch of the New York Public Library on 125th Street in Harlem to read Robin Hood and other adventure stories. By reading, he explains, “I came out of that. I had a different worldview than just my misery.”

The statistics are dismal, Myers says. Out of the four Anglophile nations-the US, Great Britain, Canada, and Australia-the largest reading gap exists here, followed by the UK. The author says he sees the problem first-hand in the tons of fan mail he receives. While he used to be able to separate letters written by elementary and high school students, he can no longer do so because the “writing has gotten so bad.”

“A huge amount of these kids are from the lowest economic status and are minorities,” Myers explains. “That’s one reason people are hesitant to talk about it-they don’t want to blame minorities or poor people.

The issue isn’t going away because “one major problem is our silence about it,” continues Myers, whose father worked as a janitor and mother cleaned apartments. “But I don’t mind speaking about this. I know it’s a problem. Kids need to read, especially poor kids and kids in urban areas.”

Since accepting his ambassadorship in January, Myers has done his best to spread the word about this issue, but says, “Our society doesn’t want to see the problem” of our growing illiteracy and incarceration rate, citing one in four black men in New York City has been in jail. “And this will have repercussions for years to come.”

His main concern? “I’m wondering where the next generation of readers is going to come from,” Myers asks. “What’s going on in schools is a reflection of what’s going on in society. There’s a gap. There are huge pockets of language poverty.”

Myers says his goal is to attract readers, “finding that special book for that child,” which isn’t easy considering that most disadvantaged kids look around and accept the bleakness that surrounds them. “[They] see people like them, with the same skin color, and say ‘this is my future,'” Myers says.

“When I talk to young people about literature, that reading will bring them $20,000 more a year [in salary], that education is going to make a difference in their lives, they know it’s the correct answer. But they don’t believe me.”

Myers stresses the importance of introducing books, especially to babies and toddlers from three months to five years old. “All research says that kids at school are at such diverse levels,” he says.” “And if they don’t catch up by fifth grade they will never be lifelong readers.”

Another important suggestion? To give more books to teens. “Change the educational system to deal with unequal scholars,” he says, explaining that in New York City the dropout rate is 47 percent.

“I want to reach kids,” Myers explains. “I want to reach out to them and invite them in.”


See below for more coverage of SLJ 2012 Day of Dialog:

About Debra Lau Whelan

Debra Whelan is a former senior editor for news and features at SLJ.

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