BOOKS

Walter Dean Myers: 'Once I Began To Read, I Began To Exist'

FILE - This Dec. 13, 2010 file photo shows author Walter Dean Myers tours his old Harlem neighborhood in New York. Myers, a b
FILE - This Dec. 13, 2010 file photo shows author Walter Dean Myers tours his old Harlem neighborhood in New York. Myers, a best-selling and prolific children’s author and tireless champion of literacy and education, died Tuesday, July 1, 2014, after a brief illness, according to publisher HarperCollins. He was 76. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes, File)

The following is an excerpt from Scholastic's Open a World of Possible, a book tied to the publisher's reading initiative aimed to donate books and raise literacy levels. This essay, "I Am What I Read," is by the late Walter Dean Myers, a Newbery Award-winning children's book writer and the author of Monster, a national book award finalist:

I could have been an alien, dropped from some strange planet into the Harlem of the 1940s. I didn’t know who my real parents were, or why I wasn’t with them. My name, I was told, was Walter Myers and the name of the people I was living with was Dean. There were odd things I couldn’t do -- like sing a song on key when I started Sunday school. I remember Mrs. Bellinger, a large busty woman asking me if I could hear the songs she was trying to teach us. It really didn’t bother me that much because I liked the songs and holding hands with other kids as we gathered on Sunday mornings to go to Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Later, when I started public school, I discovered that the other children and my teachers couldn’t understand my speech. I began my nearly eight years of speech therapy to try to clear up my enunciation. It didn’t work very well and I found myself somewhat isolated socially. Alone with my books, I liked basketball and the fact that I was always big for my age. I wasn’t the kid that bullies confronted. Still, I sensed a difference between myself and other kids my age. My stepmom had read to me from the time I arrived in New York. She often worked cleaning apartments or, if she were lucky, in some factory setting. When she wasn’t working, she would do the chores around the house and then would read from the magazines she enjoyed.

Most of the magazines were love stories and I would sit on her lap and watch her finger move across the page, word by word, as she read aloud. I didn’t understand much about the stories, I just enjoyed sitting on her lap, but soon I discovered the connection between the words she was pointing to and what she was saying. She was reading. It didn’t take me long to figure out the more familiar words and then the patterns. By the time I was four or five, I could sit in my favorite chair, a sturdy wooden chair with a cushioned seat and back, and read to Mama.

It was no big deal. Magazines had words in them and I had learned to read those words. As Mama had, as I thought that everybody had. I don’t know where the books came from that I discovered. The Little Engine that Could comes to mind as an early book. I liked The Three Little Bears and Little Red Riding Hood, too. By eight, I was leading a dual life. I played in the streets all day, and at night I would come home and spend a lot of time with stories. It was my very special world. As time went on, the stories stayed in my mind. They were with me like secret friends and would pop up in the oddest places. In the middle of a stickball game, for example, or on a tree-climbing expedition.

As I grew older, I was surprised to find that the things I couldn’t do were somewhat odd to other people. I was tone deaf, had almost no ability to distinguish colors, and still couldn’t speak well. What I could do, and what was slowly taking over my life, was appreciating and dealing with words and language. Once I began to read, I began to exist. I am what I read -- all the books, all the papers, all the stories. I think that’s what I’ve always been. Writing is just an extension of my reading life. And I love it!

walter dean myers

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BEFORE YOU GO

  • The Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, Italy
    The first-floor entrance lobby to the Biblioteca Marciana (completed in 1564) in Venice is reached by a dramatic and richly d
    The first-floor entrance lobby to the Biblioteca Marciana (completed in 1564) in Venice is reached by a dramatic and richly decorated staircase from an outside doorway in the center of the grand facade facing the Doge’s Palace. Since 1596 the vestibule has housed the Grimani Collection of sculpture. Beyond is the reading room, one of the finest rooms in Venice. The ceiling roundels were painted by the leading artists of the day. It was originally furnished with 38 long wooden lecterns, 16 down each side of the room, arranged like desks in a school classroom. They displayed the priceless volumes left to Venice by Cardinal Bessarion in 1472, each volume secured to the desk by a long iron chain.
  • The Library of the Chapter of Noyon Cathedral in France
    Libraries have been ravaged by wars and destroyed in fires throughout the ages. We came across these evocative scarred books
    Libraries have been ravaged by wars and destroyed in fires throughout the ages. We came across these evocative scarred books in the library of the Chapter of Noyon Cathedral in France. Noyon is an unusual survival from the early 16th century-- a timber-framed library. Wooden library buildings were probably quite common in the late Middle Ages, but wherever possible when money became available they were rebuilt in stone or brick to reduce the risk of fire. Here it is the effects of war that has caused the damage, the shrapnel from a bomb ripping through the bindings and embedding itself in the exposed pages behind.
  • The Biblioteca Malatestiana in Cesena, Italy
    The Biblioteca Malatestiana in Cesena, near Rimini in Northern Italy is without doubt the best-preserved example of what a la
    The Biblioteca Malatestiana in Cesena, near Rimini in Northern Italy is without doubt the best-preserved example of what a late Medieval library looked like. Constructed in 1452 for Malatesta Novello, it was designed by the otherwise unknown architect Matteo Nutti. It still contains the books that Malatesta commissioned to be painstakingly copied out by hand. Each has been preserved in its original position, chained to the desks to prevent theft. In libraries such as this one, the readers went to the desk where the book was situated rather than requesting for the books to be brought to them. The brick vaults, covered in green painted plaster, were designed to resist fire.
  • The National Library of Slovenia
    Once ascended, never forgotten; this dark forbidding staircase ascends from the entrance vestibule to the brightly lit librar
    Once ascended, never forgotten; this dark forbidding staircase ascends from the entrance vestibule to the brightly lit library above. This is a common theme in library design, but rarely done with such flair as here in the National Library of Slovenia, Ljubljana designed by Joze Plecnik and completed in 1941. A German plane crashed into the library reading room in 1944, closing it until in 1947. It has been open ever since. Plecnik was an eccentric designer and the library is one of his finest creations.
  • The Tripitaka Koreana, Haeinsa Temple, South Korea
    The Tripitaka Koreana, Haeinsa Temple, South Korea, 1231. This is one of the oldest and most remarkable collections in the wo
    The Tripitaka Koreana, Haeinsa Temple, South Korea, 1231. This is one of the oldest and most remarkable collections in the world. The items on the shelves are not books, but wooden printing blocks. There are over 80 000 of them. This building is not open to the public, although you can visit the temple and stare through the windows. It is one of the most remarkable places we were given access to. The blocks have been preserved by the clever design and layout of the buildings that house them, which ensure shelter and adequate ventilation. Set high in the mountains, cool winds have helped to keep the blocks in perfect condition for over 800 years.
  • Altenburg Abbey in Austria
    The eighteenth century saw the construction of some of the most lavish libraries ever constructed. Altenburg Abbey in Austria
    The eighteenth century saw the construction of some of the most lavish libraries ever constructed. Altenburg Abbey in Austria was constructed in 1742. Its grand hall is especially designed to exaggerate the size of the relatively modest collection of books the abbey had at the time. Underneath the library, a huge crypt was designed as mortuary chapel for the abbots. Thus the dead were remembered below, with the library housing the thoughts of the dead above. However it is difficult to think such grim thoughts in such a room so obviously designed to entertain the eye and lift the heart.
  • Mafra, Portugal
    Mafra, in Portugal is 88m (288ft) long, making it the longest monastic library in the world, narrowly beating Admont to the t
    Mafra, in Portugal is 88m (288ft) long, making it the longest monastic library in the world, narrowly beating Admont to the title. Housed in a monastery within a royal palace, the library was originally intended to be gilded and to have an ornate painted ceiling, in keeping with other libraries of the period, but its long and protracted construction period meant that both the style of architecture and the purpose of the library changed during construction. This is one of two libraries in Portugal that house colonies of bats which live behind the bookcases and feed on the insects which might otherwise eat the books.
  • Wiblingen Abbey's library, Germany
    The Rococo produced some of the most sumptuous library interiors in history. The library of Wiblingen Abbey (1744) in Souther
    The Rococo produced some of the most sumptuous library interiors in history. The library of Wiblingen Abbey (1744) in Southern Germany is a riot of colors, rich golds, light pinks and blues, every surface positively dripping in decoration. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste, these wonderful library interiors nonetheless take one’s breath away. But all is not what it seems: the marble columns and statues are painted wood. This is a magnificent stage set for displaying books. The library also contains perhaps the most elaborate of all library secret doors: The whole niche that holds the statue on the gallery hinges with the statue inside to allow you to get to the stairs.
  • Admont Library, Austria
    Of all the great monastery libraries of the eighteenth century, Admont, in the foothills of the Alps, is perhaps the most awe
    Of all the great monastery libraries of the eighteenth century, Admont, in the foothills of the Alps, is perhaps the most awe-inspiring. The corridors and staircases that lead to this room are relatively plain and nothing prepares the visitor for the space that is revealed when the doors are opened. At 236 feet long and 43 feet wide, the library is one of the longest monastic libraries ever built. Even the portable library steps are Rococo in design. Originally the collection was rebound in white leather to match the walls. There are no desks to work at because these library rooms were never intended for study. The books were taken back to the monks’ warm cells to be read. This room was always just for housing and showing off the collection and not for study.
  • The Peabody Library, Baltimore (U.S.)
    Gas lighting and iron created a new form of library in the nineteenth century: the iron stack hall. The Peabody Library (1878
    Gas lighting and iron created a new form of library in the nineteenth century: the iron stack hall. The Peabody Library (1878) in Baltimore is the best surviving example. Virtually everything in this picture-- the columns, the capitals, the balconies, the railings and the ceiling-- are made of iron. Hot air heating was supplied through grills in the floor. The use of iron also meant that the library could be built over a concert hall, the weight of the books supported on iron beams over the space below. If you are ever in Baltimore, be sure to add this to your list of sights to see.
  • Bibliothèque Sainte- Geneviève, Paris
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    The exterior of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris (1850) was the inspiration for the Boston City Library but the interiors of the two buildings could hardly be more different. The Paris library pictured here consists of a single great reading room, constructed over book-stacks below. Its dominating feature was a delicately detailed iron roof reminiscent of the railway station interiors being constructed at the time all over Europe. The library, by architect Henri Labrouste, is an intriguing fusion of modern technology with classical design.
  • Philips Exeter Academy's Library in Exeter, New Hampshire (U.S.)
    An unusual shot of one of the most striking libraries in North America built in the twentieth century. This is the ceiling of
    An unusual shot of one of the most striking libraries in North America built in the twentieth century. This is the ceiling of the central hall of architect Louis Kahn’s library for Philips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. This is one of the largest high school library buildings ever constructed. Kahn’s design is well worth a visit. The wooden carrels provided for each student next to the windows are particularly beautiful.
  • Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
    Of all the modern reading rooms, the one at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris is perhaps the most surprising. The library i
    Of all the modern reading rooms, the one at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris is perhaps the most surprising. The library is sunk in a podium and the reader descends through grand halls to reach the reading rooms below, which are arranged around a central garden containing full-size pine trees. Here sitting at your desk, you see a woodland outside, magically transported into the center of Paris.
  • The Utrecht University Library, Netherlands
    The Utrecht University Library by Wiel Arets is completely black inside, except for the furniture (which is red) and the colo
    The Utrecht University Library by Wiel Arets is completely black inside, except for the furniture (which is red) and the color provided by the books themselves and their readers. Light enters the space through windows etched with an image of tall grasses, a reminder not only of the countryside, but of the materials used to make paper. This haunting library with its calm interior offers readers a whole range of different spaces to work in. You can sit in large open areas, enjoying the light coming in through the windows and the sight of dozens of other readers working away around you. Or you can find desks hidden away in the book stacks, far from prying eyes (the perfect place to escape the outside world and immerse yourself in books).
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