Thursday, June 13, 2013

IRA Convention Highlights Post #5: National Ambassadors for Young People's Literature

I always enjoy the author panels, and this one was exceptionally good, because all three of the National Ambassadors for Young People's Literature, the current one and the two emeriti, were in the same room. Here you can see pictures of and information about all three of them. The first one was Jon Sciezka, followed by Katherine Paterson, and the current holder of the title is Walter Dean Myers.  They were great fun to listen to, and obviously enjoyed sharing the stage.  Someone asked what a good collective noun for ambassadors would be, and Sciezka suggested "an embarrassment of ambassadors." 

The NAYPL is appointed by the Librarian of Congress.   John Sciezka was happy to be the first one in 2008-2009 because he got to make up the rules, and also because the job came with a medal, which he made sure to wear everywhere.  Katherine Paterson, on the other hand, confessed that she could never remember to bring her medal.  The stated purpose of the NAYPL is "to raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of the lives of young people."

Each of these authors brought a very different sensibility to the job, as you'd expect given that one wrote The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, one wrote Jacob Have I Loved, and one wrote Fallen Angels. It sounds as though Sciezka had the most fun. He did a lot of traveling with David Shannon, and the two of them behaved a lot like middle school boys, albeit very charming and literate ones. They taught kids special arm gestures to greet ambassadors, and at one school the kids made up a fanfare for them. Sciezka's mission was to get kids excited about reading, and his books accomplish that, big-time. His website Guys Read is full of ideas for getting guys, particularly, to read. Reluctant readers, he says, quoting a kid's response to a parent, may just be "picky readers."  Engaging books will make the difference.  He encourages parents to be good role models and let their kids see them reading, and also not to demonize other media. He also suggests letting kids read what interests them and what they enjoy. He has the distinction of being the only NAYPL to be invited on Martha Stewart's show, where she told him that she had a great idea for encouraging reading: "They could close caption all TV shows, and then kids could read TV." Apparently that was the last of her great ideas because neither Paterson nor Myers ever received an invitation.

Katherine Paterson's slogan for her tenure as NAYPL was "Read for your life."  She told a story about being given $13,000 to give away after she won the Hans Christian Andersen medal.  She decided to give it to a friend in Venezuela for use with children after the mudslides there, and the friend used the money to create areas where children had stories read to them.  Later this led to an organization called Leer para Vivir (Read to Live).  She talked about how volunteers read her book  Bridge to Terabithia to children who had just lost everything. At the place in the book where the rains start, the reader stopped, thinking this was too reminiscent of the recent trauma everyone had been through. Paterson described the conversation: "Shall I stop reading?" "Yes." Long pause. "No." Ultimately, reading about someone else helped these children, who cried over the death of a fictional North American character. Anyone who has been reading my blog for a while will know that my mind went immediately to our experience here in Haiti after the earthquake, and the way reading so often helps us cope with life. I thought of the story I told in this post, about a student who was at school after the earthquake, and without permission went into my classroom and took books. She told me after I got home, and apologized, but I completely understood. Sometimes you just need books. Paterson understands this. Unlike Sciezka, who is at home with new media, Paterson is a little scornful of it. "Our democracy's not going to survive on twits and tweeters," she commented. She also talked about the benefits of writing children's books for many years. Now, when she comes out with a new book, the interviewers know her because they read her books when they were children.

Walter Dean Myers, the current NAYPL, uses the slogan "Reading is Not Optional." He foresees a literacy disaster coming, with a growing number of kids who don't read at all and whole neighborhoods where nobody reads. He said that kids who can't read and are trying to compete in the job market are like Myers himself going into the ring with Mike Tyson. His approach to reading is less about transport into other worlds and more about cold, hard reality. "Read or you're going to suffer." Our society shouldn't be silent about this "national disgrace." What is happening now in terms of intervention for kids who don't read isn't working. Myers said he goes to many prisons, and often hears inmates say, "I remember you. You came to my grammar school."  Myers is using his NAYPL platform to draw attention to what he sees as a dire situation.

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