Jason Reynolds on wanting writer role models: “Judy Blume never came and hollered at us"

Bestselling YA author discusses his latest book, "Look Both Ways" and his evolution as an artist

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published November 30, 2019 3:30PM (EST)

Jason Reynolds (Ben Fractenberg)
Jason Reynolds (Ben Fractenberg)

When I was kid growing up in Baltimore in the 1990s, I had two types of heroes. There were heroes I knew I’d never meet, you know the mega stars like Jay-Z, Oprah and Michael Jordan. And then there were the heroes I interacted with each and every day on the block — the rich drug dealers and feared gangsters. Their influence reigned supreme and is part of the reason why so many young people from my generation made the wrong decisions. They indirectly preached crack and guns as tools, and we learned the game, even if we weren't trying.

But times are changing and the children of today have a new stock of heroes to choose from, including people who intentionally want to help them, people who are inspirational while remaining accessible, people like author Jason Reynolds.

Reynolds is a New York Times best-selling author with 13 published books for young adults. He has more accolades than I can count, from being a National Book Award Honoree, to a Kirkus Award winner, to a NAACP Image Award winner, and most recently, being named to the Time 100 Next List. He pens stories that capture the hearts of young people who would normally never get the opportunity to see themselves in books. Before Reynolds, many young people (myself included) never looked for themselves in literature, but now they expect to see their blocks, their sneakers, their pain, their triumph, their struggles, and the love responsible for our colorful realities. Reynolds brilliantly delivers the good, the bad — the real.

We sat down on “Salon Talks” to discuss his latest book “Look Both Ways,” which was a 2019 finalist for the National Book Award. Watch our conversation here, or read a transcript of the talk below, to hear more about his writing process, the urgency of directly addressing young people through books, and why he believes the publishing world is changing, slowly, to include more voices and stories that are representative of today’s America.

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What was the energy behind “Look Both Ways,” your newest book?

You know what, there's something that we've never talked about or read about in books and that's sort of like that strange 10- or 15-minute window that kids have when they're walking home from schools because its unsupervised time. Who you are at school and who you are at home is completely different than who you are on the way in that gap period, and I wanted to figure out like, how do we write stories that show young people as autonomous without having to kill their parents or strand them on an island alone, like from “Lord of the Flies,” you know what I mean? How do we figure out how to create a natural environment where they're alone and can operate fully in their bodies and in their spaces? I wanted to sort of explore that in 10 different stories.

You deal with some heavy issues in those 10 different stories. Are these things that you picked up from your travels when you were going to school?

Some of them are things that I grew up with. And when you spend time with kids as much as I do, you can kind of project, right? The jokes that they crack or the innocence that so many of them possess, even though we like to grow kids up a lot sooner, the truth is that if you've ever been around kids long enough, their innocence always shines through. When it happens, you're like "Oh you're still a baby. You still would make a mistake like putting VapoRub on your lips because you think its Vaseline," right? We all know those kids, or the ashy kid, everybody knew the ashy kid growing up, dirty boy you know what I mean?

I was the ashy kid. I got lotion now.

It’s a real thing, or even just talking about kids dealing with parents who have illnesses. That's real. I was a young person with a mother who was struggling with cancer. I remember being young and having to figure out what that meant for my life and how can I be of service that can help her. So you see the kids in the book doing what some people think are bad but really it's to help out folks that they love, and that's really who kids are, you know?

One thing that I love about your writing is you have a way of taking really complex issues and making them simple. A lot of this stuff is catered towards a younger audience, but the stories are so good, they're for everybody. I feel like your work is something that families can read together. Is that a goal of yours, or does it just kind of happen like that?

It is, man. Look, the truth is that I always keep young folks at the forefront of everything I do. You know how it goes, people are in it for the money, for the fame, whatever they think is in it. For me, it’s like look, how can I figure out a way to create a healthier framework for young people to have complicated conversations? And how can I create sort of a launch pad for parents to have these conversations with their kids by using some of these narratives without being preachy or dogmatic or didactic — I'm not interested in it. I'm not a teacher, I'm not even a parent, right? I'm just a kid who's like, yo, let's figure out how to give them the tools so that they are better equipped when they get older to navigate the world as empathetic and whole human beings. That's what I'm always thinking about what that looks like.

You take a big issue like homophobia, something that still is like, “Oh can we talk about it?” and it's like bro, this is our world. These are human beings. As someone who grew up around gay men, but who does not identify as gay, what is my role as an ally, as a friend, as a brother, as a cousin? What is my role and what about teaching young people some of those things or at least showing young people there's allies and there's friends as young people in the book? What does it mean to see a father kiss his son and tell his son that he loves him before going to work? And it’s to read that. His son doesn't have to feel badly or strangely about thinking about what it means for two boys to kiss. All of these things are complex things, but also the world we live in. Kids know about it anyway.

Within your books there are a lot of different voices. There are kids from different blocks and different neighborhoods. Was it a struggle for you to differentiate between them?

It was and it wasn't. I think the upside about my life is that I've existed in so many spaces. And because I've traveled the world with literature and talk to kids from all over the world, you get to see all these neighborhoods. You get to see sort of the cookie cutter, Cracker Jack box houses and the lily-white suburbs. You get to see, Fulton Street or 125th right here in New York and, and how different they are and how the kids that exist in those communities, though the details change, the things that they want and desire are the same. It’s like you go down this block and it looks like apartment buildings, you go down this block and it might be big house, this block might be old houses, this block might be the projects. Of course in real life those things rarely bump up against each other like that, but in a fictional story, I get to kind of build a world where we all exist in the same spaces. It's to show the connectedness of our kids.

You make a lot of school visits. You write these books and then you tour and you go to all of these different schools, and kids get a chance to read stories that aren't really in a whole lot of books. You're giving them experiences that they feel and you're making their lives even more valid by publishing it. What do some of those visits look like?

When I show up to a school, it's always some kid who was like, "Yo, that's what he look like?" Especially black kids, right? Black and brown kids are like, "Oh."

What do they expect? You to have like a little Jheri curl?

They expect white. They expect a corduroy blazer with the patches. They expect a suit. They expect someone who looks like their principal or their teachers because for a lot of them, that's what they see in their lives as professional. And it’s like me with sneakers and a t-shirt and I'm kind of just like doing my thing. And so that's always the initial sort of hook is, "Oh, he looks like us," or "He looks like people that we know." I've been to the wealthy white schools too and in those spaces, those kids are just as interesting and just as important because this is vastly different than what they know, and those moments we get to sort of introduce new ideas and push them and challenge them to think outside of their bubble spaces and that's just as important, if not more important.

We can't expect the bridge to be built, to appear. We have to do that legwork and lay down the lattice work to make that happen. And sometimes that means going to spaces that feel foreign and outside of our own worlds to show young people the worlds that they don't know. And it’s special, every time. The kids never disappoint; adults are a whole other thing, but kids never disappoint. They know who loves them and if they can read you and trust you, you don't have no problems. Kids know who's with them, who's for them and who's not, and so they call you out when you not.

Did adults ever push back on the content?

Of course. I've been banned. I've gone through all that. “All American Boys” was banned, “When I Was the Greatest” was banned in Brooklyn.

When you were coming up did you have the ability to interact with a Jason Reynolds type — coming to your school and talking about literature and things like that?

That wasn't a thing. I tell kids all the time, Judy Blume never came and hollered at us. There was no one in our lives when we were kids that would have told us that we could grow up to be writers. I mean, we had career day, but career day was like you could be a firefighter or you could be a government worker, work for the Fed. There was no one coming in saying like, "I'm a professional artist. This is what I do. I'm a cartoonist and I work for Disney," or "I build computers for Mac.” That just wasn't a thing, let alone somebody coming in saying, "I'm a writer and this is what I do every day of my life and how I support myself and I've seen the world because of it.” We knew athletes could give us that, we knew rappers and musicians could give us that. We knew that if I could just do that thing then I could be financially free and I could see the world and I could be rich and famous. I think about how successful someone like Toni Morrison was and how I never knew Toni Morrison could exist until I was grown.

Me neither. Nobody was running through the hallways talking about “The Bluest Eye."

I mean the only writer that I can call to mind in terms of like seeing on the cover of a magazine that wasn't a literary magazine was somebody like Zadie [Smith]. And seeing Zadie on a regular magazine, like a pop-culture magazine, I was like, "Huh, that's interesting." I didn't know that there was any sort of way that we could do those things. It's good to know that there doesn't have to be a ceiling for you.

You are a part of that change because you're out here putting these books out and young people are being transformed and inspired. Would you say that things have gotten better since you've been in publishing in terms of representation?

It’s complicated because, it's easy for us to say things aren't getting better. I just think that's a bit disingenuous. Honestly, I think things are getting better, they're just getting better very, very slowly. And since I've been in publishing I've definitely seen change. Since I've been in publishing there are so many more books available that are, and I hate the word "diverse,” but that vast, sort of the cornucopia, that is our country, and our world.

Especially in the children's literature industry, you have books about young people who are differently abled, you have books about young people who identify as trans, you have books about all sorts of different family dynamics, you have books about class issues and all of it exists in a way that just wasn't the case. It's coming and it’s happening rapidly. My fear is that in the midst of us pushing it that we become box-checkers. The literature still has to come first. The integrity of the literature still has to be there, if not you still run the risk of doing damage.

I watch “This is Us,” with the rest of the square people in the world, and they check every category! And when a new category doesn't feel represented, rewrite!

And I don't want to do that. I think that's dangerous. I think we're running, we're playing a dangerous game in that way. But, besides that, I do think that there are a lot of people who are pushing the line and who are working really hard to make sure our young folks have options. And so, is there change happening? Yes. Is it happening slowly? Yes, but it is happening. It’s an easier conversation to have to say like, "Nope, it ain't happening." No, no, no, it's happening, and that should encourage us to fight harder.

Let's go back to the '90s. You got your start in writing by way of poetry. If I wanted to see Jason Reynolds, the spoken word artist, perform, what kind of content would we be in for?

I was a kid, right? I was doing that when I was 15, 16 years old, so it was coming from an honest place, but it also was coming from a place of a young person, who only knew what he knew and who didn't have enough experience to create nuance in the things that I was talking about. We were all experts on life, right? Everybody was a guru, everybody was like, "Yo, I figured it out, this the problem with the whole world. You did this and you did that." And then I started to have all kinds of wild experiences. Moms got sick, all kinds of things happened, and then it became sort of about me. Let me tell you how I feel.

Even in the midst of the me poems, it became sort of like, why is every poem so sad? When really it's like, but I'm not a sad guy. There are sad things happening, but I'm not, right? And so I look back on it on now, and I know it was a stepping stone or something I needed to do.

You just grow, man. I was a kid. I'm banging with like, I'm in a room with Saul Williams, I'm in a room with like all these great people and I'm listening to them do their thing. And all we could do is mimic, right? It's kind of like, I just want to be him. I just want to be this person or that person and this is what they're doing and what they're saying. And I'm going to try to figure out how to put my little sauce on that.

Looking back on it now, it gave me all the tools necessary to make the books that I make now because it taught me gut, taught me intuition, taught me how to manipulate language. It taught me how to be empathetic and how to tap into certain things. It taught me music, and rhythm, and all the things that you find in the texts now. And so I never will talk bad about it. I think it was an important part of my life. I did it for a very long time. Some of my best friends came through it, but I would never go back to look at 15-, 16-year-old Jason and his poems.

Tell us about your first book deal and how you kicked off everything for yourself in the publishing world.

My first deal, I was 21. Back then, the internet wasn't a thing like it is now. I was still a poet, I was just a poet. I wanted to be a poet. I thought I was going to be huge. I said to myself, I want to grow up and I want to be Langston Hughes. I still think that Langston Hughes is the most underrated. I think people still don't understand what he was doing. I was like I want to be Langston Hughes, and my homeboy in college, also named Jason, he was an artist and he was like "Yo, let's make a book." That's what you do when you're 18, 19 years old.

We make the book in his house and then spend 30 grand getting it printed. When you're young you could — back then at least — you could go and get high-limit credit cards. You sign the paper, they give you a Nokia phone and a high-limit credit card. We had 1,000 books printed. We had to sell them for $50 a pop. None of our friends got $50 for the book, so we can't sell them. So we move to New York. When we get to New York, we were running around the city cause all we knew was rap music, right? This is how rappers do it. You pass out demo tapes. We were running around New York trying to figure out how to get our book looked at.

This is a demo of my $80 book! [laughs]

This is a demo of a book that cost me 30 grand, right! You can have it, you know what I'm saying, just give us a write up or whatever. Of course nobody's hollering, nobody's checking for us, and then eventually I'd give it to my homeboy who gives it to a friend who's an agent and she gives it to her friend who's a literary agent and we got a phone call.

This is six months into me living in New York. And she's like, "Look, I don't know who you are, what you are doing. I don't even know if I can sell this, but anybody willing to invest in themselves like this, I at least need to take a meeting with." And there was a woman named Lydia Wills, she had just signed Aaron McGruder, that was her biggest client. “The Boondocks” was rocking at this time. And she took us into the office, and six weeks later we were sitting in Harper Collins signing the deal, bro. And that's how I got in the game. I was 21, I knew nothing about this industry, but I learned very quickly how it works.

Isn't that a good message to younger artists though about investing in yourself?

Yeah, my little brother's a musician. I always try to talk to him: Don't wait for people to come give you something. Don't nobody owe you nothing. You want something, you go get it, you do it, you go get it. And then once you do it, then I know you've got some skin in the game, then I'll invest. But I can't invest in somebody who ain't got no skin in the game.

Of all your books, do you have a favorite?

My favorite is “Boy in a Black Suit,” because I really believe that the next step for men has to be us dealing with ourselves. This book is about when I lost a lot of people early in life. Grief and funerals and death was very normal to me by the time I was 18 years old. This is a book about a kid who's dealing with that and is crashing funerals and is trying to figure out if he can grieve with strangers.

The whole book is just about this kid dealing with his interior. This boy, this teenage boy dealing with his interior, we never see it. Boys are always sort of shown and portrayed as exterior people. Everything is about what we're doing to the world, what we're putting on the world. And it's like, nah, I need to continue to work on myself in that way. But also in the books, making sure that young men get to see themselves as interior creatures.

Yeah, I never stopped to think about how I felt about certain situations until I was like 33.

It's how we socialize, right?

For boys, everything is about what are you doing?

Yeah, like, get up! You okay? Get up. It don't hurt. Get up, get up. And it's like, but what if it do hurt? Why can't I get a moment? It's always like we fall and we skin our knee, the reaction is “Come on you alright. Get up. You tough. Get up.” So I'm never going to be able to know how to deal with that pain because since we were kids it's like brush yourself off. It's like, why can't I just get a moment?

Time Magazine named you on the 2019 Time 100 Next List. What was it like when you found out?

It was weird. They hit me a while ago as an email like, "Oh you're Time 100." And I'm just kind of like, that's what's up. You know me bro, you know what we do this for. I'm not saying it's not an honor because it is, and I recognize socially in this country, like that is a thing. The Time 100 is a big deal, and so it was an honor. But it also was kind of like, oh, that's dope, I still got to go to Tacoma, Washington, and holler at these kids. I don't really have time to even like bask in that kind of stuff. I prefer it that way.

You work really, really hard, but you do chill. You go to the movies a lot. How often do you go to the movie theater?

When I'm not traveling, when I have the energy, which lately I haven't. I tried to go a few times a week, man. I used to go every day.

What do you  like to watch?

Whatever's showing. I live in D.C. and there's movie theaters everywhere. I try to just pop in and see what's playing. I'm open, I try to live an inspired life, so I'm wide open. Yesterday I was trying to go see “Parasite." It’s supposed to be the best movie of the year.

What's next for you?

In March, Dr. Ibram Kendi and I have a book coming out called “Stamped,” and it's basically an adaptation of his book “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” Our version is sort of a remix. I basically rewrote the book and did it for kids. I think young people need to be in conversation with history.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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