“When I was younger I never thought this would be my life,” Jason Reynolds said, as he addressed a packed room for his breakfast keynote at Children’s Institute 5, which took place earlier this month in Portland, Ore. “When I was a kid, I couldn’t see life outside ramen noodles and Kool-Aid.” He spoke of “welfare peanut butter,” the kind with grease so thick it turned your sandwiches into bread balls; of being “fried baloney babies,” who’d gnaw on the skins and spit them out.
“This was the 1980s, when every poor neighborhood was torn apart by drugs. This was a time when every one was dealing it, or doing it,” Reynolds said. “To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t about me. There was a funny gap from 1980–1999 where other than Walter Dean Myers’s Scorpions, there were no books.” So he gave up reading books at age nine and didn’t read any until he was 17 and in college.
When it came to literature, there was nothing for Reynolds to hold on to, nothing he could relate to. Until rap music. Rap, Reynolds says, “made [me] a writer.” People like to romanticize rap and hip-hop now in the age of Hamilton—“revisionist history,” Reynolds says. “People didn’t always think rap would save the world—and the legions of new fans it’s created.” For Reynolds, rap made him “significant, necessary” and it “told his story.” And what was this budding rap aficionado to do but go buy his first cassette tape? It was Queen Latifah’s Black Rain and it changed his life.
“Queen Latifah was writing poetry,” Reynolds told the crowd. “Maybe,” he mused, “Latifah’s ‘Ladies First’ and Angelou’s ‘Phenomenal Woman’ are the same thing, a generation apart.”
Life, for nine-year-old Jason Reynolds, was solved: he was going to be the next Queen Latifah. No matter that the other kids in his neighborhood swore allegiance to one of the three Michaels (Jordan, Jackson, or Tyson). Reynolds was going to be Latifah, and so he began writing poetry every day.
He continued writing poetry even as he failed his English class in college. It almost happened a second time, but he had the kind of conversations that college students often have with adults in higher education: “I don’t like you, you don’t like me, but I know you don’t want me in your class for another semester.” Reynolds walked away with a D and into a Shakespeare course, where he not only respected the professor but thought him worthy of sharing his sheaf of poetry with. Even when the professor told Reynolds the poems weren’t any good, Reynolds persisted.
Around this time, Reynolds took a job at Karibu, a Washington, D.C., bookstore (since closed), that celebrated books by authors of African descent. He added, “And we had the Harry Potter books, because we weren’t stupid.” It was here that Reynolds first read Richard Wright’s Black Boy and from the first page, he was captivated. “Here was a kid,” said Reynolds, “who burned down his mama’s house and I thought, ‘That’s what I’m talking about!’ ” After Wright, he went through the stacks, devoured the classics, reading James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison, just as a new sub-genre swept the scene. This “street fiction” was both a new craze—people would come into the shop and buy up titles by the bagful—and a new panic, according to Reynolds. The older generation shuddered, thinking it was the death knell of black writers, that young readers would only want this new—and to the older readers, inferior—product. But Reynolds “understood why [these books] were working” and it was precisely because they “filled the same void as rap music: they were raw and honest. For some kids, this was their life.”
“I’ve been told what I can’t do my whole life,” Reynolds said, and so when he moved to New York after college and got a book deal, along with co-writer Jason Griffin, he called his mother and told her he’d made it. But in 2009, when that book (My Name Is Jason. Mine Too, HarperTeen) came out, it flopped, much like the surrounding economy. Reynolds wanted to quit. At this point, he was living in his car. Quitting seemed natural, almost; he had gotten farther than most, with a published book to his name. When he told his friend Christopher Myers, son of Walter Dean Myers, that he wanted to throw in the towel, Myers, an accomplished author and illustrator in his own right, suggested that Reynolds “put [his] natural tongue down” on the page and see where that took him. In time it took him to an award-winning series of middle-grade novels (including The Boy in the Black Suit, Ghost and the upcoming Patina) that feature kids who talk like he did, act like he did, and dream big like he did.
“That story that you’re looking for? You already have it, inside. It’s you,” Reynolds told the audience in closing. “Booksellers, it’s your job to have those books. As a kid, I needed the books to say, ‘We are happy you are here.’ Cool? I want to make sure a young person isn’t deprived. There aren’t so many Queen Latifahs anymore.”