Jason Reynolds reveals a secret to writing for young people ahead of Orange County Children’s Book Festival – Redlands Daily Facts

Jason Reynolds says he grew up without books, so he never felt like he was missing out on reading. After all, how can you miss something you never knew?

“It was absent from life in a way that didn’t seem to leave any kind of holes, because you don’t know what kind of hole it’s leaving — because you never had it, right?” says Reynolds, who today is a critically acclaimed poet, author of award-winning YA and middle-grade books and current Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for 2020-21.

It was when he was in elementary school that Reynolds, now 37, discovered rap music, and in the rhythm of the lyrical flow heard poetry and found a pathway into literature.

  • Jason Reynolds is the award-winning poet and author of YA and middle grade books including “Stamped,” “Long Way Down,” and “Ghost.” He will be a virtual panelist at the Orange County Children’s Book Festival on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. (Photo by Kia Chenelle)

  • Jason Reynolds is the award-winning poet and author of YA and middle grade books including “Stamped,” “Long Way Down,” and “Ghost.” He will be a virtual panelist at the Orange County Children’s Book Festival on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. (Photo by James J. Reddington)

  • “Stamped: Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning” is a collaboration between YA author Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, whose original scholarly book won the 2016 National Book Award for Non-Fiction. (Image courtesy of the publisher)

  • Jason Reynolds is the award-winning poet and author of YA and middle grade books including “Stamped,” “Long Way Down,” and “Ghost.” He will be a virtual panelist at the Orange County Children’s Book Festival on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. (Photo by Nathan Bajar)

  • Jason Reynolds is the award-winning poet and author of YA and middle grade books including “Stamped,” “Long Way Down,” and “Ghost.” He will be a virtual panelist at the Orange County Children’s Book Festival on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. (Photo by James J. Reddington/Book image courtesy of the publisher)



“I think what happened more than anything was I realized that perhaps there is a combination,” says Reynolds, who will appear on a virtual panel as part of the Orange County Children’s Book Festival on Saturday, Sept. 19. “A way to combine letters to cast a spell. That’s what it felt like.”

A poem could make a reader or listener feel good or bad — or maybe just a little bit better for a moment. That’s what one of his very first poems did: It was written for his mother when his grandmother died when he was 10.

“It felt like I had the power, that there was a certain alchemy involved in these 26 letters that I had been taught,” Reynolds says. “Once you realize that magic isn’t for the magician, but that it’s for me and everybody else, it changes the way you connect to it.

“Once I realized that I could do that, that I could learn sort of new combinations, I could learn new sort of spells with these 26 letters, I was good to go,” he says. “I was off. I hit the ground running.”

He liked the way it felt when the words he formed in his mind, on the page or with his mouth made those kinds of connections.

“Writing the poem for my grandmother’s funeral, it only mattered because I got to watch it in realtime,” Reynolds of the verses he wrote that his mother published in the program for the services. “And when I watched it work, it was like, ‘Oh, I can do this, and I want that feeling of it over and over and over.’

“I think for me, I just realized I’d found my weapon on choice. It’s like James Brown always said, ‘Every single instrument is a drum.’ And I think for me, every kind of writing is a poem. And if all of it’s the same, then that means that I approach literature with a certain kind of freedom.”

The accidental novelist

Reynolds says he never intended to write young adult or middle-grade fiction when he and a college friend moved from Maryland to New York City after college. They were looking to find a publisher for the book they’d created.

“I kind of fell into the industry,” he says. “I didn’t even know that YA was a thing. I didn’t know that children’s literature sort of existed because it wasn’t a part of my life.”

But when he and Jason Griffin scored a contract with HarperCollins at the tender age of 21, the publisher told them the book would be targeted at teen readers.

“They said, ‘This is for kids,’” he says. “Now, we never thought it was kids, we thought it was for us — but we were kids. We were writing something that we thought was directly connected to our lives, but we started writing that when we were 18 years old.”

The book, “My Name Is Jason. Mine Too.: Our Story. Our Way,” flopped, Reynolds says. But when he wanted to return to the industry six years later, he did so by knocking on the only door he knew.

“The only context I have for the literary industry was the children’s sector, so it just made sense for me to at least tap back into that space,” he says. “And it just so happened that I had learned it was actually where I wanted to be.”

His first book back, “When I Was the Greatest” in 2014, won the 2015 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent from the American Library Association.

His next, “The Boy In The Black Suit,” won the ALA’s Coretta Scott King Honor, and since then his works have included the National Book Award finalist “Ghost” and the novel-in-verse “Long Way Down,” which won awards including a Newbery Honor and Printz Honor.

Not a teacher

Reynolds knows his views on the role of young people’s literature are not shared by all, but he feels strongly that it’s not his job to teach kids anything.

“I think we kind of miss the boat sometimes,” he says. “So many of us are trying to educate them, which I think is rooted in a place of ego from the adult, instead of just bearing witness to their lives.

“And I think that’s all I really am interested in doing. I think young people feel so ignored that my job isn’t to do what every adult in their lives is doing, it’s actually to do the opposite. My job is simply to see them and to put them on the page as they are.

“Which means I got to put the ugly on the page and I got to put the beautiful on the page, because they’re both of those things. I got to put the painful on the page and I got to put the joyous on the page. Like, tell their stories in totality, with some nuance, the best I can.”

That said, he does believe in the act of reading as a way for young people to think and strengthen their minds. Reading anything, not just the classical canon, teaches skills from concentration to discipline, emotional intelligence to self-awareness.

“All of these things are what it takes to be a human,” Reynolds says. “So does it matter to me that you’ve never read ‘Moby Dick,’ but you are awesome when it comes to interpersonal communication? No!”

Into the deep end

Reynolds says his mother always told her children that they lived in the deep end, the place where the biggest challenges are found. And that’s true, he says, in how he’s turned ideas into words throughout his career.

“I always like to put myself in the hot seat,” he says. “Let’s see if I can pull off a story that takes place in a matter of a minute, write it in verse, make it a 250-page book but it’s one minute of a kid’s life. Let’s see if I can take 10 stories and weave them together very subtly to sort of explore what it’s like to talk about 10 minutes of the day after school.

“Let’s see if we can take Miles Morales, Spider-Man, and figure out how to turn this superhero story into the story of the school-to-prison pipeline — and get it published,” Reynolds says.

“Let’s see if I can take a 700-page tome and turn it into a 250-page sort of fun, interesting thing to read that is non-fiction and the heaviest topic of the country’s history.”

That last one references his 2020 collaboration to turn Ibram X. Kendi’s 2016 National Book Award-winning “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” into a version for younger readers.

“We met at the National Book Awards in 2016. I was nominated for ‘Ghost,’ and we just kind of got cool,” Reynolds says.

Kendi, an academic writer just a year older than Reynolds, soon moved to Washington D.C. for work, and the two started hanging out together, Reynolds says, which led to Kendi’s proposal that Reynolds adapt “Stamped.”

“I said no maybe three of four times,” he says. “He kept asking and asking and asking and I was like, ‘No, I don’t think it’s a good idea.’ My thing is like, ‘Yo, how do you take something that is such an important brick in the wall of race in America?

“I mean, it’s a big contribution; I’m not sure I want to touch it. I’m like, ‘I don’t know, man, my mama says, ‘Leave well enough alone,’ and that is well enough. I don’t want to bother this thing.’”

Eventually, though, he relented, and as he ground out two different drafts of a traditional youth adaptation — placing the academic lexicon in plain English, editing to tighten and shorten it — he started to worry he might not make it out of the deep water this time.

“The book’s still coming in at around 400 pages and it’s boring, right?” Reynolds says. “Like, if I’m 12 years old, I’m not reading it.”

So he flew to New York City to tell the publisher he was out and they could have their advance money back.

“But before I could get to that part, and I’m telling (our editor) how I’m struggling, she said, ‘Yo, you keep writing your version of his book, but what we asked you to do is write your book.’”

In other words, do your own thing. That meant, Reynolds told his editor, “in order for me to do that, I have to ruin this thing that he made, and not only do I have to ruin it, I have to kind of make fun of it. And she said, ‘Cool, do what you got to do.’”

Kendi, who hadn’t read any of Reynolds’ drafts, loved it.

“He said, ‘This is exactly what it should be,’” Reynolds says. “And he’s the one who said, ‘This is not my book, so we can’t call it an adaptation.’ That’s the reason why we called it a remix.”

In the end, all that time spent in deep waters was worth it.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done and probably the thing I’m most proud of,” Reynolds says.