MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
This episode is part of NPR's collaboration with the Library of Congress and its annual National Book Festival. To learn more about the festival, go to loc.gov/bookfest.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today, a very special conversation in honor of NPR's partnership with the Library of Congress' National Book Festival. We're going to celebrate kids and reading by getting to know a man who is changing the world of children's literature.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The moment we've been waiting for - please welcome...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mr. Jason Reynolds.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hey.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Jason Reynolds.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hey.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: What you mean to say is, bestselling author...
JASON REYNOLDS: (Laughter) Jason Reynolds.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: ...Jason Reynolds. Jason, by the way, is...
ZOMORODI: Jason Reynolds is kind of a rock star in the literary world.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You're making, I feel like, all - every writer in the world upset right now because you have two books out at once.
REYNOLDS: (Laughter) That's the goal.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: That's the goal.
ZOMORODI: Over the last decade, he has written more than a dozen books for kids and young adults, including award-winners like "All American Boys," "When I Was The Greatest" and "Long Way Down."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I love this. I've never read about history like this. I've never read about the now like this. I hope everybody reads this. It should be in every school, I'll tell you that much. Thank you so much...
ZOMORODI: And hearing him speak may be the hottest ticket in town, if you're a kid.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
REYNOLDS: Hello. Hello. Everybody all right? Y'all good?
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.
REYNOLDS: All right. It's a whole lot of y'all in here. And there's so many young people here, and there's so many not-so-young people here.
REYNOLDS: And I'm trying to be...
Anybody who knows me knows that I only got one speed. That's the speed of me. If you ain't with it, it's going to be a long lecture for you.
ZOMORODI: Jason is also the national ambassador for young people's literature at the Library of Congress. It's a literary honor that sends him to schools all around the country to connect with kids, to spark their imagination and ignite their love of reading. And he has just been appointed for an unprecedented third time.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REYNOLDS: Spread your wings, those broad wings you've been developing. Spread them as wide as possible and in every direction. And ask if anyone else could use a feather or two. Maybe then...
REYNOLDS: Maybe then, more of us might also have the moment to say, we made it. Now let's get to work.
ZOMORODI: And so on the show today, my interview with Jason Reynolds...
Hey, Jason. This is Manoush.
REYNOLDS: Good to meet you. Can you hear me?
ZOMORODI: Let me turn on my camera.
...About his life growing up just outside of Washington, D.C., his work to bring a new kind of protagonist to life on the page and how he thinks young people in this country are coping these days. We asked him to kick off our conversation by reading us the first page from "Look Both Ways: A Tale Told In Ten Blocks." These are stories from the perspective of 10 different kids as they walk home from school.
REYNOLDS: (Reading) This story was going to begin like all the best stories - with a school bus falling from the sky. But no one saw it happened. No one heard anything. So instead, this story will begin like all the good ones - with boogers. If you don't get all them nasty, half-baked goblins out your nose, I promise I'm not walking home with you. I'm not playing. Jasmine Jordan said this like she said most things - with her whole body - like the words weren't just coming out of her mouth, but were also rolling down her spine. She said it like she meant it, said it with the same don't-play-with-me tone her mother used whenever she was trying to talk to Jasmine about something important for her real life.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
REYNOLDS: (Reading) And Jasmine turned the music up in her ears real loud to drown her mother out and scroll on, scroll on. If you don't take them EarPods, earbuds, airphones or whatever they call it out your coconut head, it's going to be me turning up the volume and the bass. And I ain't talking about no music. That tone.
ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Jason Reynolds, how many award-winning books do you think start with a description of boogers?
REYNOLDS: (Laughter) One for sure.
REYNOLDS: I got one for sure.
ZOMORODI: For sure.
REYNOLDS: One for certain.
ZOMORODI: That's the one. That was from your book, "Look Both Ways," the very first paragraph. What was it that you wanted your readers to know about you, about this book, about the characters that they're going to meet right from the start?
REYNOLDS: That they are just like them. You know, I'm constantly thinking about how we can explore the everyday-ness of childhood, the mundane idiosyncrasies that it is to be a young person, no matter where you are in the world. And then how can we sort of turn those things on their heads to turn them into something beautiful and magical and elevated without sort of being highfalutin or weird, right? But just saying that, like, you know, boogers are real and boogers don't ever get old. You know, I guess it's something that we all have experienced at one point in our lives (laughter).
ZOMORODI: I thought it was so interesting, though, because you're having this light - it's this lighthearted conversation between two friends walking home from school who are in middle school. And then you kind of sneak it in that, well, the reason why one of the girls' backpack was so heavy, why she had so many books and extra homework in there, was because she'd been hospitalized with sickle cell anemia. You kind of sneak it in there that there's something very serious going on.
REYNOLDS: I do. And I think to sneak it in there is the best way to do it. I think - I'm always curious about the way that we portray young people and portray tough stuff for young people because I think we sometimes lay the burden on the back of the child, when really, you know, things happen in our lives, but children always find time to laugh, right? Children always find time to talk about boogers or to talk about potato chips or to crack jokes or to tease each other despite some of the heavy things happening in their lives. I think they have a resilience that actually shines brighter sometimes than we give credit to. And I think I'm always curious.
And I think this is the reason why I write for kids so much is because I think as adults, what happens is, when we go through tough times, we'll be bummed about it. And we'll let it drag on for a moment. And we'll use the excuse of, like, responsibility as the thing that forces us to move forward. Young people don't always have the excuse of responsibility. They just have the excuse of life. And there's something about that that I find absolutely profound, that the reason that they continue moving forward is not because they've got to go to work or take care of their kids or pay their bills. It's because they recognize that life is a thing that belongs to them, and every day is a day that is new. That's a special thing.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. And it certainly sounds like something we adults could use a big dose of these days in particular. So I want - we'll come back to talking about young people and why you write for them. But I would love to hear a little bit more about your personal story, starting with, like, what were you like as a kid? Were you talking about boogers? Were you talking about big ideas? What was life like for you?
REYNOLDS: You know, I was a little bit of everything. I was the kind of kid who loved alone time. You know, I was the kind of young person who could get lost in his room or get lost - you know, I'd love to sit in the - my mother would be in the kitchen doing all sorts of things. And I would sit in a little rocking chair just in eyeshot and just sit there and watch and, you know, just kind of talk. And we'd have conversations. And I'm like, 6, you know, 5.
But at the same time, I also grew up with a ton of friends. I was a neighborhood kid. And neighborhood kids do neighborhood things, right? You go on these adventures, and you get into trouble. And then you learn the world through trial and error, bouncing ideas off your peers when no adults are watching. And so I had all those things working for me, and I'm grateful for it all now.
ZOMORODI: You grew up in Maryland, like, right outside of D.C. And, you know, one thing I've heard you bring up before that was a source of inspiration for you was your mother and her deep belief in you. Like, she saved all your clothes, all your old sneakers, everything you ever wrote. It was almost as though she was documenting your childhood so that people would be able to look back when you achieved greatness.
REYNOLDS: It's so strange. I look back on it all now. She always knew that there was something. The hard part for her was to allow me to go find it, to go figure out what that was. So as a young person, as a kid, it was, like, you can do anything. You can do anything. You can do - I mean, like, it was, like, every single night. You can do anything. You can do anything. You know, that was that - it was the thing that she laid on us. But when it came time for me to fly the coop - right? - when it was time to say, hey, mom, I'm going to go and be a writer, I think that all of the baggage of growing up in the 1950s and '60s as a Black woman in America, that trauma sort of pushes itself to the forefront. And her fear of one of her children living a life that might have been unstable, financially unstable, potentially emotionally unstable, was enough to cause a bit of a rift - a momentary rift.
One thing she made clear was, the hardest part about being a parent is that you raise your children not to be followers, but you never take into consideration that that means that one day they won't follow you. And in that moment, you will either have to stand on your word or you'll be made a hypocrite, right? And that's real, you know. And that's sort of the what - who we are and who we were back then and what she raised us to be and to understand who she was as a parent.
ZOMORODI: So in 20/20 hindsight, I mean, it all seems to make sense, right? You're a bestselling author. You're the national ambassador for young people's literature. But talk about that scary moment when you left to become a writer. Had you been writing all along as a kid? Was she, like, well, this is what my kid is born to do? He's got to go do it. Or was this like, whoa, wait, what are you going to do?
REYNOLDS: Nah, she knew. I mean, I had been writing since I was a 10-year-old. By the time I was 15, I was all over D.C. And, you know, this was sort of the late '90s, and spoken word had exploded. This was still sort of this underground thing in Black and brown communities in major cities across the country, but it was growing. And it was a space for a lot of us to get together. I mean, it was a redo of the 1970s, you know. Like, it was literally the Black arts movement happening again, right? And we all felt this weird synergy. And I was the young boy who was being let in the club and who was allowed to sit in the back around all these poets, around a young Saul Williams and a young Jill Scott, right? And I'm there, this kid. And so my mother knew that, like, I was in it, and I was writing.
And by the time I was 16, I had self-published my first book and was selling that book and - you know, out of the trunk of my mother's car, you know? And at 17, I had published another one. And at 18 - right? - I was sort of doing my thing. I was all over the East Coast as a kid, as a young person, just doing my thing. So she knew it was coming, right? She knew that this was something that I was taking seriously and had been taking seriously since I was a 10-year-old. But when it was time to go - like, I had no plan. I was a mediocre student in college. It's not like I was some brilliant writer. No, it wasn't any of that. I struggled in college. I almost failed out of college my freshman year. And - but I knew that I needed to go and see.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: In a moment, how that ambitious teenager became a New York Times bestselling author despite almost giving up on writing in his 20s. On the show today, my conversation with author Jason Reynolds. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, a conversation with author and national ambassador for young people's literature Jason Reynolds. Jason's works have sold over 6 million copies. He has won countless awards. But at the start, it was a real hustle.
So you were young, like early 20s - right? - when you decided to move to New York to become a writer. And you had an idea for a book which would eventually be called "My Name Is Jason. Mine Too." But what was the plan when you got there?
REYNOLDS: The thing about New York - and I went with a friend of mine, my dear friend Jason Griffin, who still one of my best friends. We went together. And we only knew how musicians did it. We only knew how rappers did it because you got to remember this is 2005, and the internet wasn't the internet that it is today. And so nobody actually knew how to get into the literary industry. Now it's - like, there's so much information about how to how to write a query letter and how to get an agent. And like, that was not the case. What we knew was rappers had mixtapes, and they ran those mixtapes into record companies to beg people to listen. And so we made a book, and we tried to run into Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins and Penguin to get them to read our mixtape.
And we maxed out our credit cards - $30,000 - to get these books printed. And that book is the one that got us the agent. That agent found us the editor at Harper, and she said, I'm not going to change you. I want to show you all how to make a similar book that is sellable. And then that became "My Name Is Jason. Mine Too."
ZOMORODI: And happily ever after - right? - bestselling author from that moment?
REYNOLDS: (Laughter) If only. I'm like 21 years old. You know? I'm 21 when we get the...
ZOMORODI: But boy, did you have hustle, man. Like...
REYNOLDS: Oh, yeah, you know.
REYNOLDS: Listen. I try to tell everybody all the time - it ain't just the New Yorkers who got hustle. We got - it's hustle everywhere. Right? (Laughter).
ZOMORODI: It's true. It's true.
REYNOLDS: There's hustle everywhere.
ZOMORODI: All right. So tell me. Talk to me about what happened in that book. It was not the huge commercial success you thought it was going to be.
REYNOLDS: I think that that's putting it lightly. It was (laughter)...
ZOMORODI: OK, fair.
REYNOLDS: It was the opposite of that. I think this thing sold, like, a few copies. I tell - I used to - I joke with the kids all the time that it may have sold six copies, and my mama bought four. But to contextualize it, we're talking about the middle of the recession, right? We're talking about 2008, 2009. Publishing companies were falling apart. Publicists were being cut. And this is also the beginnings of the Kindle. So what's also happening is, like, the pandemonium around, like, what's going to happen to manufacturing departments? And we don't know if we should invest as much money in this kind of print run because we don't know if print's going to even be a thing. Right?
It was all this new stuff happening, and we were caught in the perfect storm. And that book got no lift. We couldn't even find it in New York or in D.C. or in any of the cities that we lived in. We couldn't even find the book. And so that was that. It came. It went. And unfortunately, our agent at the time didn't believe in anything else that we presented to her. And that was the end of our career for, you know, the next six or seven or eight years.
ZOMORODI: And did you say to yourself - did you repeat the words that your mother had been saying to you, you can do anything; you'll get back to this; you got this? Or...
ZOMORODI: ...Was there some self-doubt?
REYNOLDS: There was some self-doubt. You know, I wish I could tell you that those words sustained me in these moments. But the truth was, I - it hurt. You know, when you're a kid - when you're that young and you get that kind of swing and you do everything you can to hit the ball, and then all of a sudden they move the line for where the home run is, right? They make it so that the bat is made of plastic and not wood. They - you know, and that's what it felt like, right?
So for me, it was a situation where I felt like - you start to justify where you are. And you say, well, maybe a - one published book is more books than most people will ever publish. So maybe that's enough. And the only reason that I continue to write or that I even tried to write again was because of Christopher Myers and Walter Dean Myers. And for those listening, Walter Dean Myer, to me, is one of the - I mean, he was a lynchpin in children's literature. He was - he changed the way that we could read about Black children growing up in the inner city.
ZOMORODI: And you were friends with his son?
REYNOLDS: I'm still very good friends. One of my best friends is his son, who's also a brilliant artist and writer and publisher in his own right. And Chris was the one who told me, look, man; somebody's got to write the stories. Pop is getting old. Somebody's got to sort of pick up that baton. Somebody's got to take the mantle. And he said, I think it's going to be you.
Now, I had never even written a novel before. So it sounded ridiculous when he was telling me this. He's like, yo, I think you should do it. And I'm like, bro, I don't even know if I could write anything past 600 words. You know, I wasn't good at this in school. My first book is poetry. I don't know if I had the chops for this, you know. But I remember what my first editor, Joanna Cotler, who mentored me throughout the process of that first book - she told me one day that I would write stories. I told her that I wouldn't. She said, why do you think that? I said because I don't have the education. And she said, oh, you don't get it. She said, your intuition will take you farther than your education ever will. She was the one who recognized my gut. Right? Like, oh, you got gut. You understand yourself, and that'll be your greatest talent. And so I sat down and tried to write a story and just trust myself, shooting from the hip the whole time. And it became "When I Was The Greatest," and my life changed forever.
ZOMORODI: That book, "When I Was The Greatest," won a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent. Like, that was your first major award. And for people who haven't read it, what is different about the writing in this book, would you say? Like, what was that mantle that you were taking over from Walter Dean Myers?
REYNOLDS: I think, you know, there are a few things. I think No. 1, there's a looseness to the feel of the book. There's a casual style to the book that doesn't feel pandering or disrespectful. I don't ever want to talk down to young people or pretend that I am 15, right? I'm not. I'm almost 40, you know?
But what I do know is that no one likes to be lectured to, and everyone likes to be spoken to. Everyone likes a conversation. Nobody likes a sermon. And so if there's a way for me to create a conversational tone, even in a piece of fiction, that still feels sophisticated, that still feels nuanced and complicated, the characters feel complicated, it pushes back against some of the stereotypes without eliminating or completely washing the idea that trauma exists. Because it does exist, right? But it doesn't mean that trauma is the only thing that exists, or that our neighborhoods, no matter how funky they can get, that these neighborhoods aren't also absolute paradises for us, right?
And all of these things are what I always am trying to put into the books and to say that, like, I see you. I just want to bear witness. I don't want to teach you anything. I'm not interested in proving any points. I just want to say that, young Black child - young child in general, but for me specifically, young Black person, I see you, and I know who you really are - who you really are, right? And that's what "When I Was The Greatest" did. It took what Walter was doing in it, and hopefully - I hope, and I don't - I'm very careful about speaking about him because, to me, he's the top of the mountain - but I hope I got to add on to it - right? - and continue to push that line forward.
ZOMORODI: So that first book was about four boys growing up in a Brooklyn neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant. Do you remember when you went - the first time you talked to a young person who had read the book and you saw that, yeah, you'd done it, that you had made them feel seen?
REYNOLDS: Oh, gosh. I remember the first email I got from a parent who said, my kid read "When I Was The Greatest," and he's from this neighborhood - because I lived in Bed-Stuy at the time. And he was like, yo, my kid lives in this neighborhood, and he couldn't believe that he was reading about something that felt like his everyday life and where he lived. And when I say where he lived, I mean a story in which he lived. He survived in the story.
It's just about these kids' lives, right? It's just about, like, a couple of days in these kids' lives and the everyday stuff that young people in Bed-Stuy can get into and young people anywhere can get into and the exploring where the line is as you sort of are making your mark in the midst of a really strange maturation moment, right? Like, that's just life, you know what I mean? It's - somebody told me that the reason that middle school kids are so antsy is because their bodies are growing faster than their skin can stretch.
REYNOLDS: And so physically, they're literally uncomfortable in their skin. And I think that carries over into 15 and 16 and 17. There's an ill-fittedness (ph) to who they are and who they project themselves to be. And that is why I find them so interesting. And that's what makes for a good story. And also, there's a self-awareness there. There's an arrogance. There's, like, a weird ego there.
REYNOLDS: Right? But there's also this really interesting self-awareness, where a kid that's 16 can look you in the face and say, I am really, really depressed and anxious, right? And the truth is that what we do is we sort of wash them with this idea that, like, no kid will tell you his feelings, especially a boy, right? We always say boys just won't express their feelings. And it's like, boys won't express their feelings to you, but a boy will express his feelings to anyone that he trusts. Anybody would. And so how do we put them in situations where they can be trusting? That's the real question. And that's what I'm trying to do with these books.
ZOMORODI: Oh, that really speaks to me as the mother of an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old who definitely seem itchy, as you described, in their skin.
ZOMORODI: My youngest had a just meltdown on the beach yesterday crying. And it ended up being about starting a new school. And I just said, just cry it out, sister. And she did. Boy, did she cry it out on the beach.
ZOMORODI: And then, she was done. She was like, OK, so let's go get ice cream (laughter).
REYNOLDS: Isn't that - and how amazing is that, right? Like, I feel this way. I'm going to have this moment. And then I'm going to process and synthesize and process this moment, and then I'm going to go get some ice cream. Like, that is childhood.
ZOMORODI: One of your next books was "All American Boys," which came out in 2015. This is a story about police violence against young Black men. And this was the book that finally got you on the bestseller list. But why, do you think? What was it about this book? Was it because there was a kind of awakening in society about police brutality and suddenly people were like, whoa, this is happening and we don't have books about it?
REYNOLDS: I - you know, I don't - my honest answer is, I don't know. Because even the way it hit the list, there was almost like a blip. It was like, oh. It was like a weird spike. I mean, it was out a year and a half. We had toured it. The book came out in 2015, which was, like, right after - we're talking about, like, Mike Brown. Mike Brown is in 2014. September 30, I believe, 2015, "All American Boys" comes out. Now this is, of course, the time where, like, every week - this is - Black Lives Matter has started. Every week there's a new hashtag.
REYNOLDS: You would think - right? - you would think that the book would have caught, but it didn't. It didn't. We toured that book for a year, a year and a half. And then all of a sudden - we were in Baltimore. I'll never forget because it was my first time. We were in Baltimore at Towson University and got a call that it had hit the list - a year and a half after it came out. So it just - I don't know. So people think I, like, exploded. And it's like, nah, there was a very, very slow crawl. And then people were like, huh, there's a whole bookshelf of this kid that no one's heard of.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: One of the things that your books really do is they get in the heads of young people. Like, they really help the reader understand what these characters are thinking. That particularly struck me when I was reading "Long Way Down," which came out in 2017. Would you mind reading the first few pages for us?
REYNOLDS: I got you. No worries.
(Reading) Don't nobody believe nothing these days, which is why I haven't told nobody the story I'm about to tell you. The truth is, you probably ain't going to believe it either - gon' think I'm lying or I'm losing it, but I'm telling you this story is true. It happened to me, really. It did. It so did. My name is Will - William - William Holloman. But to my friends and people who know me-know me, just Will. So call me Will because after I tell you what I'm about to tell you, you will either want to be my friend or not want to be my friend at all. Either way, you'll know me-know me.
(Reading) I'm only William to my mother and my brother Shawn whenever he was trying to be funny. Now I'm wishing I would have laughed more at his dumb jokes because the day before yesterday, Shawn was shot and killed. I don't know you, don't know your last name, if you got brothers or sisters or mothers or fathers or cousins that be like brothers and sisters or aunties or uncles that be like mothers and fathers. But if the blood inside you is on the inside of someone else, you never want to see it on the outside of him.
ZOMORODI: Tell us more about this book and why you wrote it.
REYNOLDS: Yeah. "Long Way Down" is the story of a young man named Will Holloman, who loses his brother Shawn to gun violence and is faced with a choice. And that choice is, do you avenge your brother's death like the neighborhood rules have taught you to do, or do you not? The entire story takes place in a minute of this child's life as he's on the elevator, going to the lobby floor to go and - to figure out what he's going to do. And he's met with a bunch of different visitors along the way. And it's - I mean, I'm very proud of it. It's - but what I'll say about it is this. What happens is it gets distilled into this - what people say is a book about gun violence. But the truth of the matter is, is that it's actually not.
It's a book about children. It's a book about how what happens when we criminalize children is we no longer have to see them as children. If we can call the child a gangster, a thug, that we don't have to address the fact that this is a scared child. We don't have to address poverty, education, food, housing. Right? We don't have to address any of these things, any of the social ills that pushes a child's back against the wall. We never had to address or hold ourselves accountable and say, how could I ever blame a child for not having what I never gave them? That's what the book is really about. Right? Like, I think we - gun violence is far too easy. The real question is, why? Why? What makes a child do something like this? What pushes a child? And what do we have to do with that? How do we take some of that weight?
ZOMORODI: I have to say reading this book, because of the way that you've written it, it is so accessible. It's poetry. But also, I was like, wow, I am so lucky to be inside this kid's head. I never thought I'd hear this.
REYNOLDS: That's all I ever really want. You know, I used to go to schools, do presentations. And I would start the presentation with a magic trick. And it would be, you know, pick-a-card type of trick, you know or I'll-guess-the-number-you're-thinking type of trick. And the reason why those tricks have always stood the test of time is because every human being on the face of the planet wants to believe that someone else just might know what's on their minds. And I think that's all I'm ever really trying to do. Right? Can we live in the mind of a child? Can a child read this book and say, man, somebody knows. Right? I can share my secrets between the pages of a book because somebody else knows already. I've been let off the hook. There's something very valuable, I think, when that happens.
ZOMORODI: I mean, speaking as a grown-up, the next time I'm on the subway and I see a kid that age, I think it's going to help me imagine what's in their minds, maybe not just related to, obviously, something - a traumatic event, but all of your books - imagine what's in their minds. And, you know, when we can imagine what someone is thinking, that is the gateway to empathy, right?
REYNOLDS: Oh, God. Imagine that. I mean, I always say, you know, we should sprint toward compassion and crawl toward judgment. Right? Sprint toward compassion - compassion first - you know? - compassion first. Everybody thinks they know everything about everybody. And the truth of the matter is, is that if we were being honest with ourselves, we probably do know more about people than we give ourselves credit for, just because we know a lot about ourselves. We just don't want to admit it to ourselves. The same fear you have is the same fear that kid has. The same things you want is the same thing that that kid wants. Imagine if we could remember that before we other that child. You know?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: Coming up, more from Jason Reynolds about how to reach young people and what we adults can learn from them. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. We'll be right back.
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today on the show, a conversation with Jason Reynolds - he's the bestselling author of countless books for young people. He's also the national ambassador for young people's literature. And we're talking to him as part of the Library of Congress' National Book Festival.
Can we talk about the kids, the people who you wrote the books for?
ZOMORODI: What do they tell you? - because - correct me if I'm wrong - you have spent the last several years touring around the country, whether it's in real life or virtually, talking to them. What do they say that they like about you? And do they ever tell you things they don't like?
REYNOLDS: Oh, of course.
REYNOLDS: What they say they like, I think - first and foremost, when I walk into the building, when I walk into the room, especially at the beginning of my career, they were always so surprised by what I looked like.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REYNOLDS: Hello, hello. Everybody all right? Y'all good?
I am a big guy - right? - 6'3", you know, a big man. I've got long hair, very long dreadlocks. And I have tattoos everywhere. I always have on T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, right? I mean, this is it. I look like their older brothers. I look like their uncles and their older brothers. And that's just who I am, right? I don't - I can't pretend to be anything that I'm not. I just go into the school as me.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REYNOLDS: We're going to talk about something else. We're not going to talk about books for a second.
And then when we talk and when I give my lecture, when I give my speech, when we do my presentation, it's like talking to your big cousin.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: What's your favorite sport?
REYNOLDS: What's my favorite sport? I grew up playing basketball. And I was lucky to grow up in the time of...
I'm not a formal person. I don't find value in formality, especially as it pertains to those I refer to as family - don't make sense to be formal around family. And for me, these young people are my family.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: What's your favorite thing that you like to do with your mom?
REYNOLDS: You know what? So, like, my mom and I spend a lot of time together when I'm not all over the place. You know, we live - we like to do really simple things, you know. My mom one of these people who live in Costco, you know what I'm talking about?
REYNOLDS: And we laugh and we joke, right? - because what a young person wants to know is that you are who you say you are so that I can trust you. But I can't come into a school and talk about reading some books, and you looking at me like, but who are you? Let me tell them who I am. Let me show them who I am. And then they'll show me who they are. And then we can talk about maybe reading these books.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: What was your favorite book that you ever made?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: What inspires you the most in your writing? Like, where do you go for ideas?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: We're currently writing our own book. And, well, what I want to ask is, would you like to come to our book launch?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #6: How long does it take you to write books?
REYNOLDS: And the truth is that they go and they read everything because they trust me. That's it - simple. It was a very simple concept from the beginning.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #7: What advice would you give to future writers?
REYNOLDS: What advice - would I give to future writers?
What they tell me is that they appreciate me speaking to them like humans.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REYNOLDS: What you have to understand, whether you want to be a writer or whether you want to be anything, is that excellence is a habit. Never forget this, OK? Excellence is a habit. It's not something you can turn on or turn off. You either going to be excellent, or you not going to be excellent.
Like, human beings - not as half-formed things or whatever sort of pejorative coding we attach to childhood or to being a child, right? Oh, you're being childish. You're being kiddie. You're being a baby. You're - nah. I talk to them like human beings. And nine times out of 10, there's always one who says, man, I just appreciate you just giving it to me straight, just talking to us like people. We can handle it.
Now, there have been moments in my career, valuable moments for me, when a young person will say, you know - for instance, "When I Was The Greatest" - kid comes up to me and says, you know, I wanted to give you a note on "When I Was The Greatest." And this is, like, a 12-year-old, right?
REYNOLDS: And this is good. And this is where I think some of us, some of, you know, us adults, I think this is where we lose out, is that we sometimes forget to humble ourselves in the presence of children and take their critique, which is valuable. It's valuable 'cause they know what they feel. They know what they think, right? And this kid says, you know, I read "When I Was The Greatest" - loved it. I wish that you would have given Needles, the character who has Tourette syndrome - I wish you would have given him more speaking lines. He has Tourette syndrome. That doesn't mean that he's mute, right? That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with his ability to speak.
ZOMORODI: Jason, it sounds like a good note.
REYNOLDS: It was a brilliant note. And the kid was absolutely right. And then you know what I said? And he said, did you do it on purpose because you're going to write a sequel? And in that moment, I could have lied to protect my ego. I could have lied. I could have said, yeah, man, I thought, you know, I'm going to work on another one where it just focuses on Needles. I could have lied. But that would have, in fact, been a lie. And I don't believe that kids - I just - the kid deserved the truth. And so I said, you know what? Honestly, it was an oversight. It was a blind spot. And thank you.
Another time, when Brendan and I did "All American Boys," you know, I had a young person - many, many young women come up to us and say, man, you know, we wish you'd - the girls in the book, they do everything, but you don't give them enough light. But the plot of the story, they're the ones who push the boys to do all the good stuff. But you don't give them enough light. You don't give them enough screen time, enough page time. And in that moment, again - right? - and as a man, I know I had those blind spots. I know it, right? And it's - we all do, you know. And to be able to look a young woman in the face and say, man, again, it was a mistake. It was an oversight. And the greatest regret that we have with that book is that we wish that we would have done more with the young women characters.
I mean, look, I have no - there is no perfect book. And every time I get those moments where a young person calls me to the mat, I'm grateful. I'm not offended, and I'm not all broken up and sensitive about it. No. I'm grateful that a young person could say, hey, man, I love you. And I know you love me, and that's why we're going to have this conversation about what I need you to do moving forward in your work that is meant to serve me. What a gift.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. I mean, it sounds like you're getting as many ideas and feeling energized by them as much as they are getting something out of your visiting.
REYNOLDS: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I get way more. You know, it's uneven. Trust me, I get way more. I get way more from them. I mean, you know, everything that I've learned over the last couple of years around our new - and I don't even want to say new - new-to-many-of-us ways of discussing gender and sex and identity and the - you know, this incredible moment we're having, that's complicated for some. But most of the things I've learned pertaining to sex and gender and the new ways that we talk about it have come from teenagers.
ZOMORODI: Yeah, because I was going to ask, how do you...
ZOMORODI: How do you stay up - like, you know, language is changing all the times for kids. My - again, back to my daughter, who was like, oh, yeah, at camp, there was a non-binary bunk. I was like, oh.
ZOMORODI: OK. And she just kept going, telling me about, you know, the craft that they all made and just did not skip a beat. So...
ZOMORODI: Like, you need to be hearing how kids talk, right?
REYNOLDS: Absolutely. Absolutely. You can't show what you don't know.
REYNOLDS: And so when people - you know, honestly, Manoush, when people talk about this work and they talk about my career and my life and the awards and all that - whatever - all that stuff, what I really want people to know is that I actually love children, right? This isn't - you know, there are occupations, but this is vocational. I actually just like to be around them. I enjoy having conversations with them. I like to laugh and joke. I like to be a child. I like to be childlike. I don't think we should ever lose it. I'm too old to be childish, even though I am sometimes.
REYNOLDS: But you're never too old to be childlike, right? And I think what they do is they remind me over and over again that, actually, we'll be OK. That the only reason that one can even begin to maintain an inkling of hope is because of the possibility that reside in the youth. And so to rob yourself of that is to rob yourself of the antidote to hopelessness.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: So I have to ask you, you know, as someone who probably has been spending as much time with kids over the last pandemic months, year, almost two, as anyone, like, how are they? How are they? How are kids?
REYNOLDS: They're in a liminal space, you know? I think that they - many, many young people are struggling with mental health and for good reason, you know? We all are. Being locked in your home, being away from your friends, being - having to go to school on the internet through videos and laptop screens and iPads - I mean, this is all very jarring, and it's harmful. And a lot of them can feel - they feel the weight of that. They feel the weight of uncertainty, and they feel the weight of isolation.
And what happens, I think, sometimes is we say, well, like, young people are suffering. And it's like, well, young people are just humans, and all humans are suffering. It's all of us, right? It's just that maybe they don't - if we're not doing our jobs, it can sometimes be hard for them to have and find the necessary resource to manage and cope. So we got to do our jobs - right? - to make sure that they have what they need in order to cope, which also means that we got to make sure that we have what we need to manage and cope.
REYNOLDS: Right? We're all in this same boat. That being said, though, there hasn't been a moment when I've been on a call or a Zoom or, you know, or seen a kid in my neighborhood that we didn't find just a moment to laugh, that's for sure. There hasn't been a moment where I haven't found a moment to ask questions about what video games they're playing and what, you know - and we take these things for granted because we - because we as adults understand the double-edged sword of technology.
But think about TikTok dances. Now, to many of us, it's, like, silly. But if you're a kid locked in the house and you make up a TikTok dance and then you get back online three days later and 300 people have repeated it, then suddenly you feel less alone, right? And so we pooh-pooh these things, right? And I think that there's something really important there. I think that there's something genius happening and something connective, even if the connection is - may not be as substantial as an actual hug or as a classroom or as any of those things.
I don't want to just dismiss the thing that they control. Because they're controlling that. That's them doing this. They are saying, I'm going to do a thing and share this with all the kids in the world, hoping that all the kids in the world will send me a signal back. And it's happening, and it happens all the time. And there's something about that that's kind of magical to me. There's something about it, right? I know it's a double-edged sword.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. It's the best. It's the worst.
REYNOLDS: Exactly, exactly.
ZOMORODI: It's so high and so low.
REYNOLDS: Exactly, exactly. So.
ZOMORODI: So how do you compete with that? How do you compete with that? What do you - you know?
REYNOLDS: Oh, you don't compete with that.
REYNOLDS: You don't compete with that. No. Manoush, you don't compete with it. That's where we lose. Right, you work with it. You work with it. You don't compete against it. There's no way that I can win. There's no - there's no way to win against YouTube and video games and TikTok and the internet and, like, two-minute videos and - like, there's no way to win that if I'm fighting against that. There's no - and the truth is, there's no reason to fight against it. My job is to fight alongside it, to work with it - right? - to work with it, to say that, like, OK, you like two-minute videos, and two-minute videos is what's holding your attention. Cool. I get it. I'm going to write a book of short stories. I'm going to write a book that's in verse. I'm going to figure out how to use the thing that you already are interested in. I know where your attention span is, so I'm going to figure out how to work with it, how to work with it, right? Because I can't win this fight. It's a futile fight, right? And I tell people this all the time. We keep trying to - you know, how do I win my child back from YouTube and TikTok? It's like, you'd be better off watching it with them...
ZOMORODI: Yeah. Wow.
REYNOLDS: ...And figuring out how to have conversations, right? Like, but if you think you finna win at that argument, (laughter) that's not going to happen. That's not a thing.
REYNOLDS: And that's what I'm trying to do in the books, right?
REYNOLDS: So I can make that - if I can make that happen on the page, then I don't have to fight against YouTube or TikTok. I can literally operate and live alongside.
ZOMORODI: OK, so I have to ask, are you going to keep going at this clip - putting out books two, three, four times a year? I know you're also doing programs, videos, trying to get kids to write, giving them amazing writing prompts. But, like, where do you get the energy? Like, you must be tired.
REYNOLDS: Oh, yeah, I'm exhausted.
REYNOLDS: I'm exhausted perpetually. But, you know, I can't - I don't know. I can't explain it. I love this. I mean, think about it. Come on. This is a dream come true. I mean, here I am talking to you about the things that I get to make with my mind and imagination. Could there be a better life? Like, could there be a better gig? I mean, I get to do this - I get to do this every day.
ZOMORODI: And you're going to keep doing it because we can announce right here, right now that you've been named to a third term as the Library of Congress' national ambassador for young people's literature. That's never happened before in the history of the role, so a big congratulations and thank you for your service.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
REYNOLDS: Thank you very much, and I am honored and proud. And anyone who knows me knows that I take this role very seriously. And I'm excited to see what we can get done, you know? Because I'm all about getting it done. You know, listen, this ain't no award. This is a job. This is a position, an appointment. And there are responsibilities that I take very seriously. And I'm looking forward to touching down in some of America's - some of America's incredible towns and counties and cities that perhaps are often overlooked and talk to those young people and remind them that they're actually not invisible, that they're not being overlooked, that I can see them, that their stories matter, their towns matter, their families matter, and that we're much more similar than we are different and that story is the thing that reminds us of that.
So I'm so - I just - I can't say it enough just how grateful and how honored I am to be in a position to do this work. And it is work. I want to be clear. It is work. That medal is a heavy medal. And I mean that physically, and I mean that metaphorically. That is a heavy weight around one's neck that I am very grateful and proud to carry.
ZOMORODI: You're making me think of the phrase - when people say they serve at the pleasure of the president. It sounds as though you serve at the pleasure of America's youngest people.
REYNOLDS: Oh, I am in complete service. I mean, who else is there to serve? You know, I always say, if we do our jobs and we are in service to them, then they will grow to be in service of the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: Jason Reynolds, you rock. That was awesome.
REYNOLDS: (Laughter) Thank you so much.
ZOMORODI: That's author Jason Reynolds. He is the national ambassador for young people's literature, and he was just chosen to continue that role for a third term.
Thank you so much for listening to the show this week. This conversation was part of NPR's collaboration with the Library of Congress National Book Festival. For more information and more author interviews, visit loc.gov/bookfest. If you want to find out more about Jason Reynolds, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds of TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.
This episode was produced by Rachel Faulkner and Fiona Geiran. It was edited by Rachel Faulkner and Sanaz Meshkinpour. Our TED radio production staff also includes Jeff Rogers, James Delahoussaye, Katie Monteleone, Diba Mohtasham, Matthew Cloutier, Sylvie Douglis and Harrison Vijay Tsui. Our audio engineer is Daniel Shukin. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint and Micah Eames. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the Ted Radio Hour from NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.