Author Jason Reynolds is a Newbery Honoree, a Printz Honoree, a two-time National Book Award finalist, a two-time Walter Dean Myers Award winner, and the recipient of multiple Coretta Scott King honors, among other accolades. He’s also the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. His books for young readers include All American Boys (cowritten with Brendan Kiely), When I Was the Greatest, and Long Way Down. Griffin has shown his art in major cities around the world. He created the artwork for My Name Is Jason. Mine Too, written by Reynolds, and his most recent projects include a mural for the children’s cancer wing at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, as well as a residency at Het HEM, the new contemporary art museum in Amsterdam. We asked Reynolds and Griffin to interview each other about their artistic approaches and their new collaboration, Ain’t Burned All the Bright, which combines poetry and collage to explore recent events in America and the kaleidoscope of Black experiences.
Jason Reynolds: Hey man, so I want to skip the formalities these interviews usually have where they try to give some sort of context for the book(s) being discussed, and just ask the stuff I’ve always really wanted to know. So, I’m just going to shoot.
I’ve known you for years, and we’ve worked together for the better part of our friendship, but what I’ve never asked you is what exactly do you “see”? What I mean by that is, when you read something, or hear something, do your creative sensors start working immediately? Or is it all just practice and skillset? Or is it, maybe, like a different kind of synesthesia-like experience?
Jason Griffin: I like your style, J.
I actually struggle with sitting down and reading books because of my imagination. I get a page in, and I start to create a world in my head and that becomes so dominant that I find myself reading without comprehending because I get so engulfed in my own ideas of what the thing I’m reading might look like. Fortunately, this is 2022 and audiobooks are a thing, and hearing someone else read helps me stay with the story. Even still, I find that I have to listen to books a number of times to fully get them. When I hear something, I do sometimes see things, but I really am a visceral kind of guy. For instance, when I listen to music it has to make me feel a certain way, so I’ve always been drawn to either instrumental music or the instrumentation of music. The chords or the beat have to strike me a certain way, more than the lyrics. Does that make sense?
My turn to ask something about you that I’ve always been curious about. How do you read so many books and retain so much? Is there a trick?
Reynolds: Ah. That makes sense. There are things that trigger your imagination, and once it’s triggered it’s hard to put the rabbit back in the hat, so to speak. I also think it’s interesting that listening to books is better for you, and that you socialized it as “being read to,” because I think we often see that as something associated with children. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way at all. I actually mean it as a way to reference your genius. If, in fact, children learn better or engage with stories more efficiently when being read to—perhaps because of the freedom to let their imaginations do the heavy lifting—then it would make sense that this would work for you, because I find that your art and your unabashed way of making it, feels like a kind of moxie only a child could have.
As far as reading, you know, I think this is also connected to being child-like but in a different way. I feel like one of the things adults do when trying to help young people develop their reading skills is allow them to read what they want for a specific amount of time. Whether it be all the teachers who have free reading time at the end of class, or parents who have figured out ways to make this feel like something other than punishment, there is something about setting a certain amount of time aside for reading. For anything for that matter, but in this case, reading. And to be honest, I got this from my good buddy, Lisa Lucas, who is the most well-read person I know. Years ago I asked her the same question you’re asking me. And you know what she said? That you’d be surprised how many books you’d get through if you just read an hour a day. Turns out, she was right. An hour of reading is way more pages than people think. As far as memory, well, that part I can’t explain. Everything sticks, for me. It’s a good thing sometimes, and other times there are stories I wish I could forget.
Speaking of things sticking, how would you describe your evolution as an artist? I’ve been around your work for half my life, and I’ve seen it go through all sorts of changes. What sparks the change? What makes you say, “Okay, now I’m going to try and do it this way?” Or is your approach always the same and the outcome is just different?
Griffin: Reading an hour a day makes sense. I feel like that’s the key—consistency. And just to elaborate a bit on your memory, I can remember 20 years ago in college when you were active on the spoken word circuit. You would memorize hour-long sets and some of the poems you would recite would have been written the day before or sometimes the day of the show. So... there’s that.
Great questions about process, and I think the truth lies somewhere between having an approach that is similar while at the same time trying to mix it up. With any project I’m working on, I always tend to make a lot. I wish I had the ability to just create the thing on the first try but that rarely happens. Creating art is a process of trial and error and allowing space for happy accidents. So, in a sense, I always push myself to make an abundance of work, and play as much as possible, and that sets me up to create things that are different than what I’ve done in the past. For example, I made about a thousand pages of art for Ain’t Burned All the Bright, and we used 380. With those thousand pages, I would throw different materials into the mix to try and keep the process fresh. One day I asked my wife to pick out materials from the art supply store—anything—and she came back with sequined material. I took the material and did a charcoal rubbing over the paper and this became the shingles for the roofs of houses in the third breath. I would never have conceptualized something like that, but once fresh information was thrown into the mix, I just had to keep going, keep trying something new.
And on that note, you, sir, share the same strength of locomotion. You don’t stop and are extremely prolific. What are some of the things you do to keep the process fresh?
Reynolds: That makes sense. Also, shouts to your wife for trying to stump you!
How do I keep things fresh? I think for me it’s just about curiosity. I want to make the things I haven’t seen. Does that mean they don’t exist because I haven’t seen them? Not necessarily. As a matter of fact, I don’t think there are too many stones unturned at this point, at least in literature. But I do think my point of view is all that’s necessary to inject freshness into an already explored thing. In order to keep my point of view evolving, I try to live a curious life. I try to be open to all there is to know. I try to hear and see the world with a childlike wonder. And then I try to write with a kind of recklessness—a looseness—to see how my current voice translates without fear of judgment. Writing, or maybe the creative life in general, is all an exercise in becoming.
Okay, you know we can talk about this kind of stuff all day, but... we can’t. So, I’ll ask this final question, especially since this will be a lot of people’s introduction to you. There are a lot of adults who read PW, and many of them who are reading this piece are most likely working with or raising young folks. Think back to your younger self, the boy who would become the man to co-create the experience that is Ain’t Burned All the Bright. Using one word each, what would your mother, father, favorite and least favorite teacher say about young you?
Griffin: Whoa. One word each huh?
Reynolds: One word each.
Griffin: Okay. My mother would say, “kind,” my father, “extroverted,” my favorite teacher would say, “talented,” and my least favorite would say, “annoying.” Or… another word. Ha!
Reynolds: My mother would say, “determined,” my father would say, “generous,” my favorite teacher would say, “peculiar,” and my least favorite teacher would say… “annoying,” too. So, at least we’ve learned we both annoy the people who don’t believe in us.
Griffin: And you know, I’m totally okay with that.
Reynolds: Me too.
Ain’t Burned All the Bright by Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin. Atheneum/Dlouhy, $19.99 Jan. 11 ISBN 978-1-5344-3946-7