On the first Monday in July—a day it seemed like everyone else in Washington, D.C., took off to start celebrating the Fourth early—Jason Reynolds walked from his home to a coffee shop on H Street, a mile or so away. He had work to do.
Reynolds works a lot. He will have published eight novels in less than three years, including three coming out this fall: Miles Morales: A Spider-Man Novel (Marvel, Aug.); Patina (Atheneum/Dlouhy, Aug.), a sequel to his National Book Award finalist Ghost; and Long Way Down (Atheneum/Dlouhy, Oct.), a standalone YA that will likely ratchet his reputation up another notch.
After 13 years in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Reynolds moved back to Washington a year ago to be closer to his 72-year-old mother, Isabell, who still teaches special education in a Maryland public school.
But actually being at home is a rarity for Reynolds, whose meteoric rise has made him a highly sought-after speaker. He admits to having trouble saying no. “It’s hard, because I will hear from a teacher who says, ‘My kids could really benefit from hearing your story,’ and the kids she’s talking about are like the kids I grew up with,” he says. “So I give all that I have, three to four talks a day, 100 times a year, every year for the last three years. This opportunity means the world to me.”
Kids Like Him
Though he was born in D.C., Reynolds moved “two blocks” across the Maryland border as a child so his mother could have a yard and enough space to shelter “grandparents, aunties, and cousins,” if need be. The third of four children, he graduated from Bishop McNamara High School in 2000 (11 years after fellow alumnus Jeff Kinney) and went on to the University of Maryland, where he earned a degree in English while working part-time at the now-closed Karibu Books, a chain that specialized in African-American literature.
Reynolds says that, until college, the major influences on his imagination had been almost exclusively rappers. Biggie, Queen Latifah, and Tupac Shakur spoke far more directly to him than the books he had been assigned to read in high school.
“Hip-hop saved me,” he notes. “It gave me permission to use language in a certain way. It validated my community and my friends. It gave our slang a certain elegance.” The blowback from people who criticized the music eventually worked in his favor. “I have a chip on my shoulder I pet every morning, a constant feeling like I have something to prove,” Reynolds says. “Hearing that the canon can’t be diversified, there’s no room for more brown faces—that fueled my fire. I loved music that people said was not music, that it was too violent, too crass, too sexual. And now everyone in the world is rapping Hamilton.”
At Karibu he found literature he had never encountered in grade school—stories about the black experience by black writers. His college introduction to the work of people like Langston Hughes refocused his creative energy on writing—and reciting—poetry.
After graduation, he and a classmate, Jason Griffin, moved to Brooklyn and self-published My Name Is Jason. Mine Too., a poetry collection written by Reynolds and illustrated by Griffin. The autobiographical work tells the story of two broke young men with the same first name and the same dream: becoming artists.
Though the book didn’t find a wide readership, it caught the attention of former HarperCollins editor Joanna Cotler, who republished it for teens. “It was quirky, but it was a way for me to get him on my list,” Cotler recalls. “I think it’s really clear when you meet someone who has something powerful to say. You can’t fake that. He had the gift.”
When Cotler decided to retire, she suggested to Reynolds’s agent, Elena Giovinazzo of Pippin Properties, that Caitlin Dlouhy, who had worked with Cotler at HarperCollins, might be a good editor for whatever Reynolds wrote next. Giovinazzo invited Dlouhy to her agency’s annual picnic. “Without telling either of us what she had in mind, she introduced me to Jason, just to see what our rapport would be like,” says Dlouhy, who now has her own imprint at Atheneum. “We hit it off immediately.”
Dlouhy has since edited seven of his novels, beginning with When I Was the Greatest (Atheneum/Dlouhy, 2014), for which he won the 2015 John Steptoe Award for New Talent from ALA’s Coretta Scott King committee—the first in a long list of awards his subsequent books have received.
“It’s a lot in a short amount of time, but it’s rare to find an author who has so many ideas and each one is a gem,” Dlouhy says. “And he isn’t just firing them out. Every word matters. It’s the poet in him.”
Coming Full Circle
Though there is great anticipation for Miles Morales, Reynolds’s Spider-Man novel, and Patina, the first book he has written from a female viewpoint, the fall title that is likely to get the most attention represents a return to his earliest literary love: Long Way Down is his first novel in verse.
The story centers on 15-year-old Will Holloman, who gets on the elevator in his building with a gun, intent on killing the person who just murdered his older brother. But as the elevator descends, it stops for passengers, each an important figure from Will’s life who has been victimized by gun violence. Reynolds calls it “Christmas Carol magic,” adding: “It’s not waving a wand, but it is magic. He’s being revisited by people from his own life, but are they ghosts, or are they his subconscious telling him to think?”
The story was inspired by Reynolds’s frequent visits to juvenile detention centers. “Most of these boys are in detention because of gang violence and don’t realize this turf stuff exists in its own vacuum,” he says. “ ‘You shoot me, I shoot you,’ and it’s been like that for decades.”
Reynolds knew that world. When he was 19, one of his best friends was murdered, execution-style. He and his friends vowed to exact revenge but never followed through on their plan; they didn’t know for sure who had pulled the trigger. “After we did not murder that asshole I realized how lucky that was,” he says.
Reynolds hopes the story helps boys who are confronted with terrible choices to think twice before they act. “The reason he tours all these juvenile detention centers is that he wants those boys to know, ‘I could’ve been you. I was you. But you could be me,’ ” Dlouhy says. “Those are the readers he most wants to speak to.”
Re-establishing His Roots
Reynolds has two books scheduled for publication next year. One, Jump Anyway, was written years ago. It’s a lengthy poem—maybe a letter to himself, he says—that he originally read at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington. Dlouhy is packaging it as a gift book, to give to graduates. “He talks to kids in a way that’s not gilded, to prepare them for how hard it might be, but also to say how important it is to have a dream and go for it anyway,” Dlouhy says.
In May, Reynolds signed a seven-figure deal for four more as-yet-untitled books with Dlouhy. When he isn’t traveling, he’ll continue to write from early morning until midafternoon in coffee shops along the H Street corridor. Most of the people in his neighborhood don’t know who he is, and the people who do know of him aren’t aware he lives here. “I have walked into the public library on 17th Street and the librarians were like ‘Whaaaaaaat?’ ” he says.
Reynolds does not intend to rest on his laurels. Success, he says, is “weird.” He adds: “The people who know me do not ask me about the next book, or how it’s going, they ask, ‘Jason, are you sleeping?’ because they know my brain will not shut down. There are so many things I want to do, so many things I have to say. I got into this to serve children. I love children dearly. But I also intend to be great. There are no other options.”