Author Spotlight: Jason Reynolds
You have to start somewhere. Jason Reynolds, now an award winning novelist, started with a dream and a friend/collaborator.
Before Jason Reynolds won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent for his first novel, When I Was the Greatest, he was a poet trying to make it in New York City. He chronicled his experience in poems with art by his friend and roommate at the time, Jason Griffin. The book that came from their collaboration, My Name is Jason. Mine Too, is small but stunning. In the book, the two Jasons explore post-college life in NYC and success & failure in art from their different perspectives.
The book begins with a back and forth between the two Jasons about the decision to move and how hard it was at first. Griffin writes, “For the first six months we ate only cereal, peanut butter toast.” The poems and the pictures blend together to tell the story of how the two men immersed themselves in their dreams. They may not have had a lot of luxuries, but they had room to grow. Reynolds writes, “Because it’s just / so hard / To explain to people / That my life / Is not unhard / But not unhappy.” My Name is Jason. Mine Too is an ode to collaboration, to dreams, and to being all in.
At the recent Twin Cities Teen Lit Con, Reynolds talked about that first book and his early days in NYC. When an audience member asked what kept him going during that time in his life, he answered without hesitation: his mother. He saw the sacrifices she made for her kids and her desire for her kids to reach their potential. He realized that the best way to show his gratitude to his mother was to put his dreams first even when it wasn’t easy.
That first book wasn’t an overnight success, and it’s now listed as Out of Stock Indefinitely with the publisher. But it was a first step to finding his own voice to tell the stories he wanted to tell. Since those beginnings, Reynolds has become an acclaimed writer whose work has been informed by a desire to acknowledge the real lives of young people right now. Hip hop and poetry were what drew him to writing because they spoke to his experience as a teen; they acknowledged issues that were real to him at the time. Now, he says, he writes with the hope of being relevant to teen readers. It isn’t about creating a timeless work of literature for him; it’s about being firmly rooted in the present to capture the issues teens are facing now in a way that feels real to them, the way that rap and hip hop music did for him. His 2015 YA novel, All American Boys, another collaborative effort in which he explores race issues and police brutality with white author Brendan Kiely to powerful effect, certainly does that.
Reynolds’ most recent book takes his talent for creating complex and compelling characters to a younger audience. As Brave as You follows eleven-year-old Genie from Brooklyn to Virginia, where he and his brother spend a month with their grandparents. It’s the last place either of the boys wanted to spend their summer vacation, and Genie has his worries and questions about it as he always does. The heavy issues of the story, which addresses guns and grief among other things, never weigh it down. This is a thought-provoking story about family and connection that will stick with readers.
From his first book to his latest, Jason Reynolds has proven himself to be all in. Years from that first collaborative book of poems, he is now regarded as a writer who is willing to explore difficult and important themes in a way that speaks to young people. His books have become must-reads for fans of teen fiction (and now middle grade), and I expect they will continue to be so for a long time to come.
Titles Available by Jason Reynolds
When I was the Greatest. 9781442459472. 2014. Gr. 9-12
Boy in the Black Suit. 9781442459502. 2015. Gr. 8-12
All American Boys. 9781481463331. 2015. Gr. 9-12
As Brave as You. 9781481415903. 2016. Gr. 5-8
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