J ASON Reynolds can empathise 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 children, as a cautionary tale.
This week Reynolds published his ninth book – his third this year: a novel 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.
An ode to 'Put the Damn Guns Down', the novel takes place in 60 potent seconds – the time it takes a kid to decide whether or not he’s going to murder the guy who killed his brother.
Told in short, fierce staccato narrative verse, 'Long Way Down' is a fast and furious, dazzlingly brilliant look at teenage gun violence.
At 33, Reynolds is a best-selling author with an array of awards, including multiple Coretta Scott King Book Award honour. He’s been a National Book Award finalist, shared stages with Ta-Nehisi Coates 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 non-reader to a literary celebrity is the sort of relatable story he wished he’d read when he was a child.
“It’s hard to be what you can’t see,” he once said. When he was in school, teachers gave him the classics – Shakespeare, 'MobyDick', 'Lord of the Flies'. They didn’t click with him.
As he explained to his school audience, “The teacher was like, ‘Read this book about this man chasing a whale,’ and I’m like, bru ... 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 neighbourhood.”
Reynolds writes books about what’s happening in his neighbourhood. 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 child grieving the death of his mother. 'When I Was the Greatest', tells the story of a group of friends navigating the streets of a slum. \
The voices are those Reynolds heard around him in the 1980s and 90s, in a neighbourhood 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 and his awareness that today’s youngsters face huge distractions: “The literary world has to compete with YouTube, Instagram, PlayStation, Xbox (and) Hulu.
” 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 non-traditional materials – comic books and rap music, for example – “as a catalyst for literacy”.
Reynolds recognises the constraints that teachers face but hopes for greater creativity in curricula: “We should say kay, let’s watch 'The Handmaid’s Tale' and then read it, draw comparisons. 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 connect it to a piece of literature,” he says. It was rap music, in fact, that opened Reynolds to the world of literature. As he likes to tell his school audiences, one day he went to the store and bought a Queen Latifah cassette tape.
As he was listening and rapping along, he opened the liner notes and made a life-changing discovery: “This is also literature in the form of poetry, but it sounds like me.” The first book he read, just before he turned 18, was Richard Wright’s 'Black Boy'.
“The mischief in that book,” he says, “reminded me of the mischief that my friends and I had done.” What it sparked in him, though, was a love of language and so he began writing.
As a university student, he and his best friend wrote a book together called Self. A collection of poetry and art, it’s something Reynolds laughs about now. He and his friend went into debt printing it, and after graduation, they took it to an agent and an editor who took them under her wing and encouraged them to write books for reluctant young readers. It was a demographic Reynolds knew well. The result was 'My Name Is Jason. Mine Too' (2009).
It was not a commercial success and a broke and disheartened Reynolds put aside his literary dream and went to work for his father, the director of a mental health clinic. Being a caseworker and helping clients get medicine and shelter taught him “true empathy”, he says.
“I learned just how interesting stories can be, how complex humanity really is, how necessary it is sometimes to humanise those who have been vilified.”
After a year, Reynolds needed more money and began working in retail, becoming a manager of a clothing store. He’d still be there, he says – he’d been rejected three times by universities due to poor marks – were it not for the intervention of an old friend, writer Christopher Myers. He encouraged Reynolds to write in his own voice and tell stories about “the neighbourhood kids, the black and brown kids who need to know that they exist, that they are special and valuable”.
So that’s what Reynolds did, often while standing at the cash register when business was slow. 'When I Was the Greatest' came out in 2014 and was a critical success, giving him the confidence to embrace his identity as a writer. Nearly a decade since his debut, he says with a smile, “Here we are, rockin’.” Reynolds says he hopes his books can serve as both a mirror of a life and a window into another.
“All I want kids to know is that I see them for who they are and not who everyone thinks they are,” he says. He is committed, he says, to getting their stories right – “and putting that on the page with integrity and balance, to acknowledge the glory and the brokenness. That’s all I want to do. It’s a lot, but so are they.”