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June 1, 2016

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Remembering Walter Dean Myers

I’m not sure which Walter Dean Myers book I read first. I do know that by the time the inaugural Printz award for young adult literature was announced, I was already a fan.  When Monster was named as the winner, I understood why. It was gritty, tough, moving, and unlike anything I had ever read.

Years later, Walter Dean Myers was selected as the third National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Again, I understood why. Here was a man who grew up under tough circumstances, taught that reading truly could change a life, and told stories that appealed to urban kids.  He wasn’t writing about the teen fighting over having to mow the grass, he was writing about the young man fighting to get away from a future of drug dealers, gangs, and jail. His characters reminded me of kids I saw on the streets of New York every day. And kids I know live in cities across the world.

I was lucky enough to have met him on several occasions, but the most memorable was during his tenure as ambassador. The Children’s Choice Book Awards Gala in 2012 was, as it always is, a crowded, boisterous, joyful event. People milled about celebrating the best children’s books of the year. The awards are meaningful because they’re voted on by students, rather than bestowed by librarians or teachers.

At one point, I looked across the room and saw Mr. Myers sitting alone observing the celebration and the clusters of people standing throughout the room. I couldn’t believe he was alone and took the opportunity to thank him for his books. Rather than a quick hello, he invited me to sit down and we had a conversation about his work as ambassador and the platform he had chosen, “Reading is not optional.” We talked about some of the things I’d witnessed and experienced as a high school student in New York and about his visits to schools and prisons.

It was a brief conversation, but one that I’ll never forget. I’m so very grateful to have met him and that I could thank him for his work face to face. In fact, current and future readers should be grateful for his work, his wisdom, and his generous spirit.

 

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