How a kid who didn’t read a book until he was 17 grew up to become a literary star
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.”
“Long Way Down,” by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books)
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.