Jason Reynolds wants kids to love his stories, but he wants them to love their own stories more. The award-winning author, whom the Library of Congress announced Monday will be the seventh National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, plans to use his two-year appointment to listen as kids and teens — especially those in small towns — share those stories.
Reynolds, a Washington-area native and author of 13 books — including “Ghost,” “Long Way Down” and “Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks” — said he’s excited about taking the role in a new direction.
“What I don’t want to do is be another mouthpiece that says kids need to read,” he said. “I realize that literacy is important. I don’t think telling them [that] works.”
Reynolds prefers promoting reading and writing by encouraging kids to talk. At school visits, he lets them ask questions — whatever they want.
“There’s always a knucklehead who asks about what car I drive,” he said. “That’s okay. All of their questions are valid.”
Reynolds, 36, credits his mother with instilling in him and his siblings that even as children, their voices were important.
“My mother allowed us to talk back,” he said. “She validated my humanity. You’re allowed to say that you disagree.”
Although not much of a reader as a child, Reynolds liked words. He discovered the poetry of rap music and began writing his own poems at age 9. He shared his efforts with family and by 16 was participating in open-mic nights around Washington.
A lot of kids and teens today, he said, aren’t encouraged to do what he did — essentially “Grab the Mic: Tell Your Story,” the name of his platform as ambassador.
“I believe that young people — because they’re not told that they have the space to speak up — I think they get a little resentful,” Reynolds said. “I think that all they’re looking for is respect.”
This is especially true, he said, of kids and teens from small towns, places with no literary scene or often even visits from authors like him.
“I’ve been through there. I’ve been all over this country. They are always surprised that I’m there,” Reynolds said. “They say, ‘Why did you come here?’ And I say, ‘Why wouldn’t I come here?’ ”
Kids from small towns will have the opportunity to talk to Reynolds, asking him questions and relating their own experiences. With the help of the nonprofit organization StoryCorps, an oral history project started in 2003, those stories will be recorded and added to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
Reynolds is working out the details of which towns he will visit over the next two years. He’ll wear his medal as have previous ambassadors, including Jon Scieszka, Kate DiCamillo and, most recently, Jacqueline Woodson. But Reynolds plans to deputize hundreds of young storytellers.
“I want to put the ambassador medal around their necks.”