Jason Reynolds: The Antidote to Hopelessness
Young people are the antidote to hopelessness. At least that’s what young adult author Jason Reynolds believes.
Jason Reynolds is a bestselling author of young adult and middle grades novels that speak to the experiences of young black males. Among his many accolades, he won a Kirkus Prize in 2016 for As Brave As You and a Newbery Honor and Printz Honor in 2018 for Long Way Down.
Born in 1983 in Washington, DC, and raised in Oxon Hill, MD, Reynolds studied English at the University of Maryland. He published several collections of poetry before writing his first young adult novel, When I Was The Greatest (2014), at the encouragement of author Chris Myers, son of revered children’s book writer Walter Dean Myers.
Reynolds has since released a steady output of novels for young people featuring African American teenagers as the protagonists. All American Boys (2015) describes a teen assaulted by a white police officer. As Brave As You follows two brothers from Brooklyn who spend the summer in Virginia. Long Way Down depicts a 15-year-old who sees his brother shot to death.
The first time Jason Reynolds understood the power of words, he was a ten-year-old boy, trying to console his heartbroken mother. His grandmother had recently died, and his mother was crying in the bathroom—a wrenching sound he had never heard her make before. Obsessed with rap, Reynolds wrote a few lines. When they were shared at the funeral, something happened.
Jason Reynolds: I remember everyone coming up to me and saying, “Man, you know, there’s something about what you said. This poem was amazing.” I didn’t even know it was a poem or anything. They were just like, “This poem was amazing. It made us feel better,” or, “It made your mother feel so much better,” or, “It affected some kind of change.” Now, that feeling becomes an addiction, right? You’re like, “Oh wait, you mean, I can make somebody feel better by saying something, by using these words on this page, and figuring out how to manipulate that?” And that was the beginning of this thing. That was the beginning of realizing that maybe I could say something that could affect change in some way.
Affecting change wasn’t just what words could do. It was, for the Reynolds family, a way of life, of being. The intimacy, humility, and gratitude that would become signature beats in Reynolds’ award-winning novels for children were values instilled at home. His father, for example, preached the virtue of giving.
Reynolds: He believed that if you have two dollars, give one away, right? Or he believed that if you have nice things, give the nice things away. The good stuff, you should give to those in need. Don’t give them your leftovers. Give them the things you love, right? Like, we, I was raised to believe, and my siblings, we were raised to believe that this is the way the world works, and that if you give, you would never be in need.
Today, Jason Reynolds is honored, he says, to write for kids. Not just because he remembers what it was like to be one of them, to harbor their kind of secrets and to ask their kind of questions, but because it gives him an excuse to spend time in their necessarily quirky company.
Reynolds: The antidote to hopelessness is young people. I firmly believe that. If you surround yourself with them, if you’re patient enough to get over the antics of adolescents, you realize that there’s something really special about youth, about discovery and curiosity, about trying to put it all together, about the humility of young people, about the arrogance of young people, right? That sort or irreverence of young people, which makes us all feel so funny now, when the reality is, is that we don’t want to live in a world where young people are not irreverent. Who wants to live in a world…
AJC: Nothing changes, right?
Reynolds: Nothing will ever change. And so this is just me saying, “I appreciate you.”
When not out talking to and learning from the young, Reynolds is at home in Washington, D.C., where he writes a new book every few months. This remarkable output was hardly preordained. In fact, Reynolds’ early resume was, to use his own word, “motley.”
Reynolds: What did I specialize in? At 21 years old, I worked for StoryCorps. At 22 years old, I worked for an afterschool program, as a mentorship, something or other. At 23 years old, I worked in a language arts program, teaching kids in Queensbridge language arts for a special program for the Jacob Riis Center. I lost my apartment. I ended up moving back home. Took a job at Lord & Taylor, because the recession hit. I couldn’t find a job anywhere. I tried to get into grad school. My undergrad grades weren’t good enough. So I couldn’t… I tried three times, was rejected three times.
Unable to gain traction for his self-published book of art and poetry, Reynolds had also given up on his dream of getting published. He was working retail in an upstart clothing store when an old friend, Christopher Myers, son of the legendary children’s book author, Walter Dean Myers, walked in.
Reynolds: He was the one who told me that I was tripping. Like, he was the one who was like, “You have to do something.” Because his father was getting older, and he simply said, “Who’s gonna do it? Who’s gonna do it? Pops is aging, and he’s been doing this work for so long. And his work has impacted the children’s industry in a very real way, so that you can even have an opportunity, if you want it.”
AJC: And this what, “You’re wasting your talents. You need to get your life together.”
Reynolds: Yeah, “Just give it a shot.” He literally asked me to try to write one more. That’s what he said, “Try to write one more book.”
These days, legions of readers impatiently await each Jason Reynolds book. It’s up to him, he says, to stir the pressure down and to remember what brought him here in the first place.
Reynolds: I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get to me. I feel the weight, and it is hard. It’s funny, my agent, and my publicist, and my mother, and my friends, they see a part of me that no one else gets to see, which is the part of me that is extraordinarily frazzled and afraid, right? It does bother me.
AJC: What are you afraid of?
Reynolds: That I won’t be able to live up to it. That at some point, I mean, the bar is set, right? And I’ve set that bar.
AJC: But it happens. It does happen. I mean, you’re not afraid of nothing. Think of all the artists you know with two great albums. Happily, you’ve now got seven or eight at this point, right?
Reynolds: Yeah, but it’s scary cause you’re only as good as the last, right? And so I’m always like, I want to make sure that I’m pushing myself to be my best self, but how do I do that and also ignore the bar that other people have set? I try to remember that this is an act of service, right, that I am working in service, I am of service—this isn’t so much entertainment for me, this isn’t fame and fortune, this isn’t any of that. This is about me making sure that, when it’s said and done, I have been of service to a generation of young people who now know that they can have a relationship with literature and literacy, because it is for them.
In the end, Reynolds says, he wants us to not just engage with his work, but to interrogate it, to find upon each page sophistication and nuance, the complexity made simple. Children deserve our attention, he says. Children deserve our respect.