D.C.-Area Author Jason Reynolds On Not Letting Young People's Imaginations 'Atrophy' The New York Times bestselling author takes on his new role as the Library of Congress's National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.
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D.C.-Area Author Jason Reynolds On Not Letting Young People's Imaginations 'Atrophy'

D.C.-Area Author Jason Reynolds On Not Letting Young People's Imaginations 'Atrophy'

Jason Reynolds recently won the title of the Library of Congress's Young People's Literary Ambassador. Courtesy of/Jason Reynolds hide caption

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Courtesy of/Jason Reynolds

Jason Reynolds isn't a parent or teacher, but he does know how to spark the creativity of young people. The New York Times bestselling author of young adult fiction wants to make sure kids continue to imagine and grow while they're at home participating in distance learning.

"I don't want their imaginations to atrophy," Reynolds says.

Earlier this year, the D.C.-area native was appointed by the Library of Congress as the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. He's won multiple awards for his books and poetry, like "When I Was The Greatest," "The Boy In The Black Suit," and his most recent — a collaboration with Scholar Ibram Kendi — "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, And You." His works address his experience being born in D.C. and where he grew up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, as a young Black man.

Jason Reynolds shows the medal he received from the Library of Congress and asks his viewers to imagine receiving an award for being the best at something. Courtesy of/Jason Reynolds hide caption

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Courtesy of/Jason Reynolds

While Reynolds' nationwide tour as the literary ambassador doesn't start until the fall, he's already had to change the way he engages with young people amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's like being hired as a city official and then a natural disaster happened," Reynolds says. "You have to change your strategy because you have to do your job. Now you have to kick this thing into a different gear and make some adjustments to make sure that you can tap the vein of these young folks."

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As students, teachers, and parents across the region continue to struggle with distance learning, Reynolds has released a video series titled, "Write. Right. Rite." Reynolds says he picked the title because he wants young people to fall into the habit of expressing themselves or writing every day.

The series airs twice a week on the Library of Congress's and Reynolds's social media pages. It's a way for him to reach out to his young adult audience and ask them to imagine and write.

"What I want us to do today is imagine your hero, whoever that is, LeBron James or your teacher, or Beyoncé or whoever it is that you idolize. Imagine not the letter you would write to them, but the letter they would write you back," he says in one video.

Young adults across the region and the United States, like 14-year-old Jordy Albarran from Annapolis, have been inspired by Reynolds's work.

Jordy, who has been in the foster care system since he was 5, says he used to get failing grades. Now, he says his schoolwork has dramatically improved after being introduced to Reynolds's books like "Patina," "Ghost," and "Sunny," stories that speak to young adults about overcoming obstacles no matter how high the odds are stacked against them. He says he's passed that inspiration on to others.

"I've used his messages from his stories — the exact quotes — to help other foster children in the system to thrive," he says.

The honors student at Oxon Hill Middle School says wants to be a writer when he grows up, just like Reynolds.

Reynolds Reaches Educators Too

Educators also find Reynolds' work refreshing and view his video series as a companion to his books. Olga Pabon, a supervisor with Prince George's County Public Schools, says Reynolds' videos are working for students.

"I love the idea that we're just kind of free writing; I'm giving you a topic and you can take it anywhere you want to go," Pabon says. "We don't do enough of that in school, just because we're always on these time constraints."

School teachers are proud to introduce Reynolds as an African American author and a product of the county schools, Pabon says. County students are already familiar with many of his books, which have made their way onto their required reading lists.

"He's well known and now he's the ambassador," Pabon says. "I think he's really had an impact on not only just our boys but our girls as well."

She's hoping that with the resources teachers are swapping via social media and everyone at home, students' imaginations will take off. Like Reynolds, county schoolteachers have also had to find different ways to engage their students.

"We've been sending them samples of virtual lessons. We've also suggested ways to break up their lessons because it's going to be difficult for students to sit for a good 45 minutes and just hear their teacher speak," Pabon says.

The county's school system also gave 60,000 Chromebooks to students in need and they've partnered with telecommunications companies to set up hotspots at meal distribution sites. But Pabon says she is not sure how many students can participate in online learning.

"We've tried to provide packets at our meal locations so that at least [students without access to the internet] would have work to do, but it's different when you can't interact," she says.

In a press conference last month, Prince George's County's CEO of Schools Monica Goldson said that even with the Chromebooks and other resources, a digital divide still exists for the county's 136,500 students; 60% of those students are on free and reduced meals.

"Lines stretched far and wide across our Chromebook distribution sites," Goldson wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. "Yet even this unprecedented commitment is not enough to solve the crisis long term, ensuring the equal access to education that every student deserves."

Goldson is asking Congress to provide direct funding for distance learning that would cover broadband access to schools and libraries, according to the op-ed.

But Reynolds says lack of internet access shouldn't be the only concern. He says he's conscious of the fact that trying to standardize online learning might not work for every student, especially those who have learning disabilities.

"There is no way to standardize education because there is no such thing as a standard child," Reynolds says.

Reynolds offers a piece of advice to students who may be feeling a little anxious during this period without attending schools.

"If you're a person like me who suffers from anxiety, and I mean that clinically suffers from anxiety, then it is best to tie your mind up in something," Reynolds says. "Maybe there is some value or a little bit of peace there."

Reynolds says whether that means reading a book, playing video games, or learning a new skill, that's less time spent for young people to worry about the world around them and more time helping them cope with the stress of the pandemic.

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