Jason Reynolds releases words as nimbly as LeBron James handles a basketball.
Words fall from his lips like crisp passes down a basketball court. When he finishes a sentence, it sounds like a shot going through a basket — nothing but net. His use of words, whether in conversation or written on a page, is masterful, yet relatable.
On his website, jasonwritesbooks.com, he describes himself as a writer who practices his craft in the same way as a professional athlete.
“The stories are kinda like my slam dunks. Except I’m dunking words. In your FACE! Ha!” he writes.
Reynolds, a New York Times best-selling author, writes novels and poetry for young adults and middle-grade audiences. He will give a free reading and book signing at Union Square Auditorium on April 24 through Scuppernong Books and Greensboro Bound Literary Festival.
The following day’s visit to Wiley Middle School in Winston-Salem won’t be open to the public. The school will receive 650 free special edition copies of his novel, “Ghost.” The novel, which was a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature, is about a gifted sprinter and troublemaker who is recruited for an elite middle school track team.
What distinguishes Reynolds from many writers is that he purposefully writes to those young people who don’t like to read. Reeling them in by creating characters who look and speak like them.
Again, from the About Me page of his website: “I know that many of these book haters are boys. I know that many of these book-hating boys don’t actually hate books, they hate boredom.”
He ought to know. He was one of those book-hating boys who didn’t read a complete novel until he was 17.
His solution: to not write boring books.
But what’s his formula for not writing boring books?
Reynolds actually makes it sound quite simple.
Something has to happen. It doesn’t have to be an explosion, he says. But there’s got to be some sort of action or interaction that motivates a reader to keep turning the page. Maybe it’s that they identify with the character or the language of the characters.
Or maybe they keep turning because they can’t wait to see what happens next, like in his novel, “Long Way Down” — an award-winning high-stakes thriller.
It was rap music — Queen Latifah, in particular — that turned Reynolds onto words. And through exploring that genre, he found his way to poetry and novels. He eventually became more than a reader of words. He’s now a weaver of words.
Here’s what he had to say recently about literature, young adults and what matters to him at the end of the day.
Why do you think some adults might find middle school-aged students to be difficult?
We would hate to live in a world where young people weren’t irreverent. It might be more comfortable for us, but the truth of the matter is, that if young people aren’t irreverent, then nothing changes, nothing grows, nothing shifts. The ills of America, the ills of the world sustain.
Young people have a reckless abandon that is necessary for things to continue to evolve. If there were no irreverence in youth, there would have been no civil rights movement. If there were no irreverence in youth, there would have been no Harlem Renaissance; there would have been no Black Arts movement. There would have been no suffrage movement. There would have been no hippie movement. There would have been no anti-war movement. No Black Lives Matter. We can go on and on and on. This is youth doing this. It’s always been youth.
I feel like adults are the most entitled groupings of humanity. It’s because of our egos, our arrogances that we believe that we are entitled, especially when it comes to our young people. We believe that we deserve their respect. We deserve their trust. When the truth is that there are young people who have experienced more than many of us ever will, and it would do us good to try to earn that trust. Which means that we have to step into their spaces with a little bit of humility and a listening ear.
What sorts of questions do kids ask you?
What kind of car you drive? How many tattoos do you have? What kind of sneakers are you wearing? You know, my talks are never about books, so their questions are rarely about books. I like that. Human beings invest in people, not products. So all the books I’ve written, all the awards and honors — the kids don’t care about that after they talk to me.
What they care about is who are you as a human being. And the reason they care so much is because they’re trying to attach their humanity to the humanity in you. They want to see themselves in you. What’s your favorite kind of rhymin’? When you were a kid, did you used to drink Kool-Aid? What’s your favorite kind of Kool-Aid? Are you rich? Honest questions.
And I always think about if when I was 10-years-old, if I got to ask Judy Blume what kind of car she drove? Think about that — that sticks.
At the end of the day, what matters?
At the end of the day for me, has nothing to do with books. Books are a byproduct of what I really want to say to young people. They’re key to getting me into spaces where I can say the things that I want to say en masse. And all I really want to say is that I love them. That’s it.
It’s a simple, simple mission for me. I just want young people to know that there’s someone out there who cares for them, who loves them, and that I don’t have to know them to love them. Or I don’t have to know them to know them.
At the end of the day, I know that because they’re me, and I choose to see them. And it’s in that seeing that I hope that my love is disseminated and made clear. That’s all.
It matters not whether they read or write. To be clear, that’s an important thing, but if I had to choose between loving reading and knowing that somebody loves them, I’m always going to go for the latter.
It’s that love that’s going to fortify them for the long run, and it’s that love that will also keep them encouraged when the reading and writing become difficult. ... It’s important that kids know they matter when the whole world tells them they don’t.
Some of what Reynolds is currently reading: “Shout,” “Child of the Dream,” “Magical Negro,” “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style,” “The Book of Training,” “The Incendiaries,” and the work of graphic novelist, Mira Jacobs.
Young adult authors Reynolds recommends: Mira Jacobs, Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, Sharon Draper, Angie Thomas, Sabaa Tahir, Dhonielle Clayton and Shaun David Hutchinson.
“They’re the writers of our time,” Reynolds says. “It feels like we rarely read writers of our time, specifically in schools. You’re reading books of the past. So what I think it also does implicitly is that it dismisses that literature is something of the time. These books matter because they engage kids with the lives they live today.”