Finding Words in Your Pockets

(From Left) Dr. Michael F. Rice, Walter Dean Myers, Dr. Zaheerah Shakir Khan, Sue Warner
(From Left) Dr. Michael F. Rice, Walter Dean Myers, Dr. Zaheerah Shakir Khan, Sue Warner

Last week, the Kalamazoo Public Library introduced kids and grownups alike to Walter Dean Myers as part of his “Reading is Not Optional” tour sponsored by the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council and the Every Child a Reader Foundation.

What a treat! It’s not everyday you have a chance to meet the national ambassador for young people’s literature. A prolific and award-winning author, Mr. Myers is the third person appointed to this post since it was created in 2008. In honor of his visit, KPL put one of his quotes—“Reading is not an option” on a bunch of buttons. Very cool.

On Wednesday, I attended a breakfast/talk hosted at the library. It quickly became clear that Mr. Myers, considered by many to be one of the most important writers in children’s books, is the kind of man who calls things like he sees them. A tall man, Mr. Myers is funny, bright, and spirited. He has an uncommon knack for appearing to be laid back and feisty all at once. I was expecting Mr. Myers to read some of his work, throw out a few interested tidbits and then be on his way.

He didn’t do this. He didn’t read any of his work and what he said was not what I expected to hear. One of the first words out of his mouth was “poverty.” When Mr. Myers talks about poverty, he isn’t talking about economics. He is referring to, “pockets of language poverty” that our children experience. Anyone who works with kids these days knows that too many of our children are growing up with not only a scarcity of food and lack of sufficient housing, but also, a dearth of words.

Some researchers have even taken the time to document this “pockets of language poverty.” Every hour, a child growing up in poverty is exposed to 1,500 less words than a child who is not being raised in poverty. This means that by the time the poor child is four years old, he or she is behind by 32 million words. This word deficit is mind-boggling. It makes the heart heavy to think about all the children who have deep pockets from which they pull out nothing.

“Literacy is a tool all kids need,” Mr. Myers said. “Either you read or you suffer,” he said. “A child will pay the penalty for a lack of literacy throughout their life.”  These aren’t warm and fuzzy statements to make and Mr. Myers knows it. But he is the kind of person who, from what I could tell, calls it like he sees it. “I’m an old black man. I can say whatever I want,” he told the audience. We laughed but we know his comments are true and need to be spoken aloud. Mr. Meyers is serving our nation well as an ambassador, for we too will pay the penalty for every child we fail to reach.

The good news is that our kids here are part of a community that has committed itself to being the education community. Together, as parents, community partners and educators we are filling the pockets of language. These pockets are deep. It is not a matter of simply tucking a word in here and there. To be successful, we must, asSuperintendent Dr. Michael Rice says, have a “drumbeat of literacy.” For the sake of all our children it’s time for all of us to play, and play hard.

Have you picked up your drumsticks, lately?

Want to know more about Walter Dean Myers? Check out his NPR interview here. And if you missed local coverage of his visit, check out Erin Gignac’s article here on MLive.

Reading is not optional