Jason Reynolds often tells fans that he didn’t read a novel cover to cover until he was 17. The admission gives him credibility with middle-schoolers who don’t want to be seen at the library. It also brings a sigh of relief to parents who struggle to get their kids to read. After all, this nonreader turned into a best-selling author. “Lu,” the final book in his middle-grade track series, published last month.
Reynolds says the stories available to his young self weren’t appealing. They didn’t speak to his life, growing up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, in the 1990s. What did fascinate him were words. When asked about the books of his childhood, Reynolds mentioned Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”
“It was the first time I heard the word ‘mischievous,’ ” he said recently.
Another favorite was Dr. Seuss, a master of wordplay.
“Dr. Seuss was a king to us,” Reynolds said. “That kind of stuff stays with you.”
At age 9, he discovered other words that would stick with him: the lyrics of hip-hop artists. Not only did he like the stories, which reflected modern life, but he also liked the form. It was poetry, and he said it seemed like a magic trick, “the masterful ability to make words that you don’t think are supposed to go together go together.”
So Reynolds began to write poems.
“I became obsessed with how can you say a whole lot without saying much of anything,” he said.
At 16, a friend’s cousin introduced him to places he could read his poetry.
“The city had an open-mic night every night of the week in a different place, and I wanted to be there,” he said.
That passion for poetry led him to the University of Maryland, where he studied English. After graduating in 2005, he and artist friend Jason Griffin headed to New York with a self-published novel in verse, hoping for a publishing contract. There was no instant success. But eventually a friend’s agent gave it to HarperCollins editor Joanna Cotler, who republished it as a book for teens.
“She said this is going to be a book for young people,” Reynolds said. “I didn’t even know that was a category.”
The book, “My Name is Jason. Mine, Too,” wasn’t a bestseller. But Reynolds said the experience made him turn his focus to writing for teens and kids, especially those who find traditional children’s books unrelatable or boring. The books that followed — such as “Long Way Down,” “As Brave as You” and “Ghost” — featured African American characters dealing with tough issues, including divorce, poverty and gangs. They’ve captured awards and the attention of many boys who are labeled “reluctant readers.”
That raises the question of whether young Reynolds would have liked his own books.
“I think that I would have read a book like ‘Ghost,’ and it would have stuck with me,” he said. “At least I would know I exist on the page, I exist in the world of literature.”
Jason Reynolds and Washington Post children’s book reviewers share five of their favorite books of 2018.
Jason Reynolds recommends
By Aisha Saeed (Nancy Paulsen, ages 10 to 13)
Amal, a young Pakistani girl, wants nothing more than to grow up to be a teacher, but her education and dreams are frustrated when she’s forced to go work as a servant in the house of her wealthy, but corrupt, landlord to pay off a family debt. It’s in this house that Amal finds out how strong she is, how persistent she is to learn. It’s also where she fleshes out her personal identity — one filled with hope and fortitude — in a seemingly hopeless situation.
By Ilyasah Shabazz and Renée Watson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ages 10 to 14)
A stunning portrait of the great civil rights activist and wife of Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz. It delves into her childhood and tells the story of young Betty, a girl carrying the weight of the abandonment of her mother, coupled with the home she found in the ecstatic language of the activists and heroes of her youth. These ingredients, among others laid out in this brilliant and true tale, eventually lead to her becoming a pillar for the black community and a beacon to the history of America.
By Daniel José Older (Arthur A. Levine, ages 8 to 12)
Simply put, there’s the Civil War and dinosaurs and kids riding dinosaurs. Yes . . . kids riding dinosaurs. It’s educational, thoughtful and most of all, FUN! All I kept thinking was, I just want to ride dactylback to . . . anywhere!
By Jacqueline Woodson (Nancy Paulsen, ages 10 and older)
A concise, beautifully written novel that puts six students in a room, with only one requirement — that they talk. Of course, talking is never about talking. It’s about listening, connecting, engaging and exchanging. The story addresses a world of ills without judgment and instead shines light on the fact that this is the world young people are growing up in. So many children are coping, and yet Woodson reminds us that these children are still, in fact, children. If nothing more, this book is a gentle reminder that we all must keep striving to be better humans.
By Veera Hiranandani (Dial, ages 8 to 12)
A heart-wrenching epistolary novel about Nisha, a half-Hindu, half-Muslim girl whose life is upended after her homeland of India is split into two countries, the other being Pakistan. Her family is unsafe, so they embark on a harrowing journey from Pakistan to the new India to find refuge. This is a story about identity, the confusing feeling of being torn in two and the absolute necessity that is family.
By Grace Lin (Little, Brown, ages 4 to 8)
A small girl in starry pajamas mixes a cake with her mother, who puts the baked mooncake into the night sky to cool. The mooncake, a bright, warm, golden confection against the backdrop of deep night and stars, entices Little Star, who nibbles on it a bit every night. Lovely and magical.
By Laura Vaccaro Seeger (Roaring Brook, ages 3 to 6)
Sixteen two-word phrases form a poem about a particularly sweet lifelong friendship between a boy and a dog in this gentle portrayal of love and loss. Seeger gracefully deploys the color blue to express a deep sense of emotion in ways that are musical, meditative and reassuring.
By Yuyi Morales (Neal Porter, ages 4 to 8)
Morales tells, through illustrations that seem to dance and sing, the story of crossing borders on a bridge of language with her young son. Together they discover picture books and public libraries, and the gifts they brought with them — open hearts, art, poetry and stories — blossom.
By Brendan Wenzel (Chronicle, ages 3 to 6)
This exuberant, welcoming look at the hundreds of animals that share the planet with humans is both poignant and lighthearted, thanks to Wenzel’s bright, big-eyed depictions of creatures furry, feathered and fanged. Black and white and brightly colored, they parade through these pages in delightful profusion.
By Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (Candlewick, ages 4 to 8)
Where do we come from? Where do babies come from? The answer is awe-inspiring, energetic and powerful. Holmes’s deep blues and reds and sunlit, primordial skies celebrate the mysteries of the universe, the blue planet Earth and the birth of a child.
Edited by Kelly Jensen (Algonquin, ages 14 and older)
Jensen has brought together sharp and vivid perspectives concerning mental-health challenges. Featuring writers such as Shaun David Hutchinson, Libba Bray, Adam Silvera and Esmé Weijun Wang, this book asks questions and provides real-life experiences and hope for the future.
By Tonya Bolden (Harry N. Abrams, ages 10 to 14)
In this richly detailed and impeccably designed biography, Bolden follows Douglass as he finds his way as a speaker, writer, newspaper publisher and American hero.
By Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Graphix, ages 12 and older)
Best known for two lighthearted book series, Krosoczka had unreliable parents, to put it mildly — his mother was addicted to drugs, and he didn’t meet his father until he was a teenager. This powerful graphic memoir reveals how he survived, thanks to his grandparents and his artistic impulses.
By Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Scholastic, ages 9 to 12)
In depicting the final months of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., this book celebrates the strength of King’s life and legacy. Brian Pinkney’s watercolor images are bright, warm and inspired, and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s text bursts with information and feeling.
By Gail Jarrow (Calkins Creek, ages 10 to 14)
Not only an entertaining description of the 1938 radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” and its aftermath, “Spooked!” also engagingly discusses facts, drama, fear and the valuable skills of skepticism.
By Katherine Applegate (HarperCollins, ages 8 to 12)
Byx may be an endling, the last of the talking dogs. As she journeys in search of others, she and her friends uncover the plot of a vicious human king. He plans to kill off all rival intelligent species. In this first novel in a compelling fantasy series, shy Byx emerges as a surprising hero.
By Kelly Yang (Arthur A. Levine, ages 8 to 12)
Mia Tang is busy! She helps her hard-working parents run an old motel and writes letters for fellow Chinese American immigrants. When the mean-spirited owner threatens their business, Mia rallies her many friends. The author draws upon her childhood in the early 1990s to create a lively historic tale.
By Katherine Marsh (Roaring Brook, ages 10 to 14)
An American boy named Max discovers a Syrian war orphan hiding in his family’s basement in Brussels. Ahmed’s passport has been stolen, and he’s afraid the authorities will send him back. In this riveting novel, both boys decide to go on the run, desperate to find a new, safe home for Ahmed.
By Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine, ages 12 and older)
Animals and humans connect in odd, amazing ways in these luminously illustrated short stories and poems. Kids take a pig on a moonlit romp, a little girl sees the galloping souls of horses, and an enormous cloud of butterflies visits a city. The book reminds us of the grace and needs of others who share planet Earth.
By Torrey Maldonado (Nancy Paulsen, ages 10 and older)
When Mike starts pushing Bryan to make bad choices and mocks him for saying no, Bryan doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t want to lose his best friend or be seen as “soft” by his tough dad and neighborhood. The suspense mounts as good-natured Bryan tries to figure things out.