Jason Reynolds can empathize with kids who don’t like to read: He was 17 before he read a book cover to cover. It’s a fact he’s shared with thousands of kids in classrooms and auditoriums across the country, as a cautionary tale.
“It’s not something I’m proud of. It’s not cool,” he told a group of seventh-graders in Stafford, Va. “The truth is, my life was made infinitely more difficult because I didn’t read any books. But I didn’t read any books. That’s my story. That’s my truth.”
This week Reynolds will publish his ninth book — his third this year: a novel in verse called “Long Way Down” about a young man coping with the shooting death of his brother. It was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. At 33, Reynolds is a best-selling author with an array of awards, including multiple Coretta Scott King Book Award honors and an NAACP Image Award. He’s been a National Book Award finalist, shared stages with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Rep. John Lewis and appeared in the pages of People magazine.
All of which asks the question Reynolds posed to his young audience: “How is it that a kid like me, a kid who grew up reading no books, eventually became a man who writes books for y’all?”
The tale of Reynolds’s transformation from a nonreader living on the edge in Oxon Hill, Md., to a literary celebrity is the kind of relatable story he wished he’d read when he was a kid. “It’s hard to be what you can’t see,” he said in an interview in the District, where he lives part-time.
When he was in school, teachers gave him the classics — Shakespeare, "Moby-Dick," "Lord of the Flies." They didn't click with him. As he explained to his middle-school audience, "The teacher was like, 'Read this book about this man chasing a whale,' and I'm like, bruh. . . . I don't know if I can connect to a man chasing a whale when I've never seen a whale," he said. "Nothing that's happening in these books is happening in my neighborhood."
Reynolds writes books about what’s happening in his neighborhood. “Ghost” tells the story of a boy who joins a track team as an escape from the violence in his past. “The Boy in the Black Suit” tells the story of a city kid grieving the death of his mother. “When I Was the Greatest,” tells the story of a group of friends navigating the streets of non-gentrified Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. The voices are those Reynolds heard around him in the 1980s and 90s, in a neighborhood where drugs and violence were on his doorstep, but inside was a loving family — aunties and close friends, one of whom taught Reynolds how to crochet (which he still does).
Written for middle-graders and teens, Reynolds’s books address difficult subjects, but they aren’t scary. They reflect his understanding of the fears and challenges that all young people experience. They also reflect his awareness that today’s kids face huge distractions: “The literary world has to compete with YouTube, Instagram, PlayStation, Xbox, Hulu” and so on, he acknowledges. When it comes to books and reading, “we have to get creative.”
The finger-wagging and required reading lists of well-meaning teachers and parents can backfire, he says. Instead, Reynolds recommends books written in a “natural tongue,” in comparative literature and the use of nontraditional materials — comic books and rap music, for example — “as a catalyst for literacy.”
Reynolds recognizes the constraints that teachers face but hopes for greater creativity in curriculums. “We should say okay, let’s watch ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and then read it, draw comparisons,” he says. Kids need to see the relationship between pop culture and high culture — the connections, for example, among Shakespeare, “West Side Story” and “Twilight,” or between “Lord of the Flies” and “The Hunger Games.” “Let’s take a rap song and figure out how we can connect it to a piece of literature,” he says.
It was rap music, in fact, that opened Reynolds to the world of literature. As he likes to tell his middle-school audiences, one day back in Oxon Hill, he went to the store and bought a Queen Latifah cassette tape for $5. As he was listening and rapping along, he opened the liner notes and made a life-changing discovery: “This is also literature in the form of poetry, but it sounds like me.”
The first book he read, just before he turned 18, was Richard Wright's "Black Boy." "The mischief in that book," he says, "reminded me of the mischief that my friends and I had done." Reynolds, then a student at Bishop McNamara High School in Prince George's County, Md. (the same school, coincidentally, that "Wimpy Kid" creator Jeff Kinney had attended years earlier), delved into the works of Toni Morrison and other African American authors. But he confesses that he was by no means a stellar student or an avid reader.
What it sparked in him, though, was a love of language, and so he began writing. As a student at the University of Maryland, he and his best friend wrote a book together called “Self.” A collection of poetry and art, it’s something Reynolds laughs about now. He and his friend went into debt printing it, and after graduation, they brought it to New York, expecting to get a deal. What they got was an agent and an editor: Joanna Cotler at HarperCollins, who took them under her wing and encouraged them to write books for reluctant young readers. It was a demographic Reynolds knew well.
The result was “My Name Is Jason. Mine Too” (2009). It was not exactly a commercial success. A broke and disheartened Reynolds returned to the D.C. area, put aside his literary dream and went to work for his father, the director of a mental health clinic. Being a caseworker and helping clients get medicine and shelter taught him “true empathy,” he says. “I learned just how interesting stories can be, how complex humanity really is, how necessary it is sometimes to humanize those who have been vilified.”
After a year, Reynolds returned to New York but not to be a writer. He needed money, so he began working in retail, becoming a manager of a Rag & Bone clothing store in Manhattan. And he’d still be there, he says — he’d been rejected three times by graduate schools because of his poor grades — were it not for the intervention of an old friend, the writer Christopher Myers.
Myers encouraged Reynolds to write in his own voice and to tell stories about “the neighborhood kids, the black and brown kids who need to know that they exist, that they are special and valuable.” So that’s what Reynolds did, often while standing at the cash register when business was slow. “When I Was the Greatest” came out in 2014. The book was a critical success and gave Reynolds the confidence to embrace his identity as a writer. Nearly a decade since his publishing debut, he says with a smile, “Here we are, rockin’.”
Reynolds says he hopes that his books can serve as both a mirror of a life and a window into another. “All I want kids to know is that I see them for who they are and not who everyone thinks they are,” he says. He is committed, he says, to getting their stories right — “and putting that on the page with integrity and balance, to acknowledge the glory and the brokenness. That’s all I want to do. It’s a lot, but so are they.”
Nora Krug is an editor in Book World.
At 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jason Reynolds will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Jason Reynolds
Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy. 320 pp. $17.99