"Everything in my life and in my books has to do with letting young people know I’m grateful for their lives."
Talking with Jason Reynolds
Jason Reynolds is a bestselling author whose novels for middle schoolers and teens have been honored by the National Book Awards, the NAACP Image Awards, and the American Library Association. But perhaps his greatest accolade is the trust and respect of the many teens with whom he speaks. How does he engage them and earn their trust?
“That’s easy,” he says, “because I think about it all the time.” He refers to being guided by three pillars--humility, empathy, and gratitude--whenever he interacts with young people, on or off the page. “I create intimacy by using my natural language, which happens to be their natural language because I’m really a big 16-year-old. Everything in my life and in my books has to do with letting young people know I’m grateful for their lives.”
Though he’s written nine books, 34-year-old Reynolds didn’t read a whole book until his teen years. For one thing, there weren’t books that pictured his world. “And in my family, we didn’t do read-alouds or that kind of thing.”
But storytelling? “There was that! Storytelling was a big deal.” Whenever his family gathered for holidays or cookouts, everyone had a story. “Because of that, words make more sense and are more interesting to me if they feel good.” Classic sentence structure means less to him than “how we evoke the spirit of the sentence. That’s all I really care about.”
When Reynolds writes, he doesn’t do so for an intended age level. “I search for the voice, and if the voice feels like an 11-year-old’s, then so it is. I try to make it as organic as possible. Writing has to be an adventure for me if it’s going to be an adventure for you. If I’m bored, you will be, too.” He succeeds in this regardless of genre or pacing--from the breakneck speed of his superhero story, MILES MORALES: SPIDER-MAN, to the high-intensity emotions of LONG WAY DOWN.
All of his books feature characters of color. “I see the increase in books like mine not as a phenomenon or a trend but as a reflection of reality. Black and brown characters aren’t for black and brown children. Books are going to continue to be integral to change, and all kids need to read about all kids.”
Reynolds explains that while reading, you have to work to empathize with the character, and because you work hard to gain that empathy, when you meet someone like the character, you’re more careful about how you judge because of the work you’ve invested. Audiobooks are just as important. “In an oral telling of a story, you can give vocal inflections. Listeners, for example, hear pain differently because they hear it in my voice.”
Many of Reynolds’s audiobooks are narrated by his best friend, Guy Lockard. “He’s amazing. He knows he knows what my characters should sound like-- he knows my voice, he knows the jokes, he knows my language--because this is a guy I was brought up with. It definitely doesn’t get better than that.”
But Reynolds himself had to read LONG WAY DOWN, the first-person story of William Holloman, told through linked poems that center around William’s struggles after his brother’s death. “I couldn’t afford to have someone misinterpret the story. Because it was written in verse, it had to be read in a certain way for the power to be there.” Reynolds also narrates his newest book, FOR EVERY ONE, an inspiring poem written for kids who, like himself, dream. He originally performed it at the Kennedy Center for the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial. The audiobook will be released in April.
Also coming in April is SUNNY, the third in his popular Track series for middle schoolers. The most recent, PATINA, is one of his favorite books. The main character is not just a track star but also a caregiver who feels keenly responsible for her younger sister and her mother, who has lost both her legs to amputation. “The responsibilities that some children face are very real things. No matter who we are and where we come from, we all have a story, and it’s usually not what you think it is.”--Susie Wilde