The Right Stuff for Teen Readers

The Library of Congress names Walter Dean Myers the National Ambassador of Young People's Literature.

Courtesy of Walter D. Myers.

For years, Walter Dean Myers has been inspiring young readers with his lively books. His stories, often set in gritty inner-city locations, are the kind that kids who say they hate reading read anyway.

Now, after more than 100 books and numerous awards, the Library of Congress has named Myers the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. It’s a prestigious two-year designation that will take him around the country to talk about the importance of books and reading.

“It’s an opportunity to tackle some of the things that I’ve wanted to address, such as enriching the vocabularies of young children by reading to them,” says Myers, who since 1978 has lived in Jersey City, where he and his wife raised their two boys. “If a kid has to be enticed to read, then that kid has to understand, this isn’t an option—this is your life, brother.”

Myers, 74, is best known for his 1999 novel Monster (HarperCollins), a National Book Award finalist,  a winner of a Coretta Scott King honor (he has won five) and the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature. The book is about a boy in jail for murder, and is written as journal entries and a screenplay, as if the boy is starring in his own movie. It was considered a radical format for its time, says Phoebe Yeh, who has been Myers’s editor at HarperCollins for 19 years. Myers’s latest young-adult novel, All the Right Stuff, about the social contract, is due in April from Amistad.

“There is no one like Walter,” says Yeh. “I cannot think of a single author who can write picture books, novels, poetry and nonfiction…. It’s really a gift to be so accessible to so many different age groups.”

Myers’s mother died in childbirth and he was given to a couple, who raised him in Harlem. His new father worked as a janitor and couldn’t read, but he was a storyteller; his new mother favored romance magazines and often read them aloud to Myers. That helped him become an early and avid reader. Myers wrote short stories and poetry but found that the books he was reading did not reflect his life.

When he was 13, an uncle was murdered and Myers’s family life fell apart. At 16, he dropped out of school and joined the Army on his 17th birthday.

When Myers finally set out to be an author, he knew he wanted to set his books in a world that kids like him could relate to.

“The true genius of his writing is that he really understands what these kids are going through,” says Yeh. “He’s saying that on some level kids are all the same: they’re all struggling with their identity. And no matter how bad it gets, they deserve a second chance.”

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