Members of the children’s publishing community, teachers, and students broke out into instant applause as author Jason Reynolds entered the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium on January 16, where he was inaugurated as the seventh National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
Addressing the crowd of several hundred, Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden said, “It’s wonderful to see this auditorium filled with young people. Books and reading saved my life; they helped me through good times and bad times. That is why the National Ambassador program was created.” Hayden recalled the transformative moment when, at age seven in Jamaica, Queens, she was given a copy of Marguerite de Angeli’s picture book Bright April by a local librarian. “That was the first time I saw myself—a brown girl—in a book.” Hayden, who was appointed to the role of Librarian of Congress in 2016, is the first woman and the first African-American to serve in the position.
Next, Hayden welcomed author Jacqueline Woodson to the stage and thanked her for her work as the sixth National Ambassador. Through her platform “Reading = Hope x Change,” she said, “Jacqueline encouraged all of us to think beyond the moment we’re living in, about the ways that we can create the change we want to see in the world. Thank you so much for being the best ambassador we could have.”
Woodson expressed her gratitude to the Library of Congress and to program co-sponsors the Children’s Book Council and Every Child a Reader. “This position takes so much support,” she said. “As ambassador, one thing we want to do is spread the gospel of reading. And it has been magical.” To young people, she said, “You’re so badass; I love you so much,” and she apologized on behalf of all adults for having “jacked up the world” and leaving it for the next generation to fix—although she has confidence in children’s ability to save us. “It is with great delight that I take this medal off and pass it on,” she said, adding that when it came to nominating her successor, “I couldn’t think of anyone else.”
Donning his medal, Reynolds said, “It’s an honor to receive such an incredible responsibility.” He promised Woodson, “I will do what I can to push the line, to take all you’ve done as a seed.” As ambassador, Reynolds plans to travel to small towns across the country, offering kids the opportunity to “Grab the Mic: Tell Your Story.” The inspiration for Reynolds’s platform comes from his experiences directly engaging with children. During his author appearances, he always opens the floor to questions, inviting kids to “ask me anything at all.” When students ask him to rap or otherwise “put on a song and dance,” he challenges them to come up and perform something themselves. “Maybe young people don’t know that their voice can have power. We’re not giving the mic to them,” he said.
In a closing q&a with Reynolds, Hayden pointed out the many friends and family members in the audience who were cheering him on—as well as a few surprise guests, including Reynolds’s former teacher, Chris Williams, classmates from his alma mater Bishop McNamara High School in Maryland, and current BMHS students, who came bearing gifts.
Above all, Reynolds hopes that his words ignite young readers’ imaginations. “I want you to love my stories, but not as much as I want you to love your own stories,” he said, pledging, “I’m the Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, not the Ambassador for Young People—that’s you. I want to put the power back into your hands. You are the bearers of a new code, and I can’t wait to pass it onto the rest of the world, to let them know you all are geniuses.”
Editor’s note: Kantor served on the 2020–2021 National Ambassador selection committee, along with Philip Nel, Cristina Nosti, Karli Pederson, Laura Pegram, Eva Volin, and Jacqueline Woodson.