February offers several great opportunities to celebrate reading. First of all, it’s I Love to Read Month—and cold winter weather makes it a perfect time to curl up with a good book. Second, February 1 marks World Read Aloud Day. I was pleased to be part of the celebration this year, as the United Way of Delaware invited several Delaware authors, including me, to visit schools throughout the state to read with students. I visited Bancroft Elementary School and Pulasksi Elementary School in Wilmington, reading from my books and talking about writing. Furthermore, participating students each got a signed copy of one of my books, courtesy of United Way funding. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and I thank United Way for inviting me to participate.
To celebrate Black History Month in February, schools and libraries across the United States host African American Read-In events. Since its establishment in 1990 by the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English, the initiative has reached more than 6 million participants around the world.
This occasion made me think of all the great children’s books by African American authors I have read over the years—books by John Steptoe, Faith Ringgold, Ashley Bryan, Mildred Taylor, Nikki Giovanni, Jacqueline Woodson, and many others. One of my favorite African American authors—and people—was the late, great Walter Dean Myers. I loved his choice of subject matter and his characters. Especially, however, I admired his writing style—gritty and realistic, yet eloquent.
Not only was Walter Dean Myers a gifted author, but a wonderful person as well. In the late 1980s, I had an opportunity to interview him for a feature article for the International Literacy Association’s Literacy Today newspaper, and he truly impressed me with his wit, his wisdom, and his humble nature. Over the years, I’ve done dozens of author interviews, and his remains one of my very favorites.
A few years later, I had the privilege of introducing Walter for his featured author speech at an ILA convention. Because I admired him so much, I spent a lot of time crafting my introduction. I wanted it to reflect the deep respect I felt for him. I must have succeeded, because when Walter took the stage, he looked over at me and frowned. “I hate it when the introduction is better than my speech,” he growled, and for a moment I felt panicked. Then he smiled to let me know he was kidding. And then he launched into one of the most eloquent author speeches I have ever heard.
Our paths crossed a couple more times over the years. I was always pleased to see him, and he always said he remembered me, which I found impressive. I was saddened to learn of his death in 2014, but I am pleased that his son Christopher, with whom he collaborated sometimes, continues to carry on the family tradition of excellence.
The We Need Diverse Books initiative, launched in 2014, promotes increased diversity in children’s books. The organization’s Walter Awards, given in memory of Walter Dean Myers, recognizes diverse authors whose works feature diverse main characters and address diversity in a meaningful way.
I encourage you to celebrate African American Read-In month by enjoying some excellent books by African American authors and celebrating the diversity such books reflect!