On December 13, students and publishing professionals gathered in Washington, D.C., at the Library of Congress to commemorate the end of Jason Reynolds’s three-year run as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. The position, an initiative of the Library of Congress in partnership with Every Child a Reader, provides an author with resources to promote literacy across the country through a platform of their choice.
The celebration, which was also livestreamed, opened with a speech from Shari Webb, director for the Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement of the Library of Congress; she individually welcomed the local students and shared the attributes she felt allowed Reynolds to be successful in his position.
“He’s a rock star in the children’s literature world, and he’s beloved by so many kids, teens, and adults.” Webb said. “But he’s also a person who has unlocked his own story. He’s a person who understands that our stories can transform our world.”
Webb also took a moment to highlight Reynolds’s many accomplishments throughout his time as ambassador, including virtual visits at 37 schools and eventually in-person appearances at 47 schools across the country, partnering with publisher Short Edition to bring Short Story Cubes, portable devices that distribute stories written by students, and sharing his Grab The Mic: Tell Your Story platform, which encourages children to be the authors of their own stories.
“Jason’s idea was powerful and different,” Webb said of his Grab the Mic program. “He knew that if students got in touch with their own stories, and acknowledged that their lives are extraordinary, they would be more motivated to read and write.”
Webb’s opening comments were followed by a live q&a session between Reynolds, eighth grader Maiya Stover at Elliot Hein Middle School, and junior Demar Franklin at Eastern High School.
The conversation began with Reynolds discussing his favorite subjects to write about as a Black man. “The most important thing is to make sure I write about Black kids,” he said. “Because it matters to me that our young people see themselves as Black young people, but more importantly, as people,” Reynolds explained. “I think for so much of our lives, we’re trying to convince people, to convince the world, that I am a human being. Young people all around the world, specifically in our particular culture, deserve an opportunity to make mistakes. They deserve an opportunity to see themselves as creative and as goofy and full of jokes and adventure and interests and curiosities, right? So, all I’m really trying to do is show life as it is.”
When it comes to covering subjects such as racial injustice, he said he’s “careful” when it comes to putting “any responsibility on any artists that they don’t want for themselves. The real question is does the [publishing] landscape have enough space for artists so that the ones who don’t want to talk about these things don’t have to, but there are [still] enough artists who do [want to], for there to be this balance? I think that’s all I really want. I don’t think that everybody [has] got to talk about race relations in America.”
Reynolds also highlighted the importance that friendship and collaboration have had over the course of his career, taking a moment to “shine a light” on the relationships that encouraged him to continue writing despite its hardships, and advising the audience to invest in their own friendships. “The people who I think really were like backbones, to me and during the worst times of it all, were my friends,” Reynolds said. “I can’t explain the sort of forcefield they built around me to make sure that I didn’t let [writing] go. Which is the lesson for you. Get you a good homie. And you only need one, one really good one.”
Closing out the q&a with kind words for the native D.C. mambo sauce, Reynolds went on to give his final address as ambassador.
Reynolds’s Journey to Ambassadorship
He began by sharing a serendipitous moment before his appointment at a train station with Dr. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, who asked him if the ambassadorship was something he would be interested in. That conversation, along with discipline instilled in him by his parents would motivate Reynolds to seriously consider the logistics of the ambassadorship, which he recognized would be a “tremendous amount of responsibility. This is not an award. I know that we are used to seeing medals as things given to people to award them,” Reynolds said. “This is very heavy physically, but it’s also very heavy metaphorically, real responsibility here, hanging around my neck.”
The day Reynolds accepted the role was during a vulnerable period in his personal life; as he was taking a call to solidify details about the ambassadorship, he was visiting his ailing father in the hospital.
“In the moment, all I can think about is my old man’s right there and he’s fighting for his life,” Reynolds said. “We’re talking about a giant of a man: somebody who lived his life with a certain level of integrity and constitution, a hard worker. Somebody who did exactly what he said he was going to do and poured himself into it.”
His father’s “full throttle” commitment to his duties, paired with his mother’s sage advice that when “you’ve been given a task, your job is to complete the task,” even under unpredictable circumstances, prepared him to take on the role of ambassador.
Reynolds’s approach to addressing literacy across the country was inspired by an encounter with a student during his first address as ambassador, also at the Library of Congress. After Reynolds shared about his love for his own mother and family, a student in the audience raised his hand and asked him to share more about his relationship with his mother. “I realized in this moment that this young person, because of my vulnerability on this stage, put himself in a position to be vulnerable in front of all of his peers, all of his friends, all of his community members, and teachers,” Reynolds said.
That moment was the key to his Grab the Mic platform, which focused on centering connection with students. “I’m gonna have real moments with these young people,” Reynolds decided. “My job is to encourage them to read and write, right? But the truth of the matter is, I can’t encourage nobody to read or write if they don’t trust me.”
Another aspect of Reynolds’s tours was prioritizing school visits in small towns across the country. “Literacy and literature and authors are not relegated to, or specific just to big cities,” he said. “There are children everywhere, in small towns all over America. These are all still special places with their own identities. And they also deserve the experience of meeting an author, or talking about literacy and literature, or listening or having someone outside of their communities listen to their dreams.”
However, as Reynolds and his team prepared to kick off their tour at the beginning of 2020, their plans were derailed by Covid, forcing them to rethink and adjust their plans to reach students. They immediately pivoted their in-person tours into virtual tours, providing educators with digital resources and activities to use. “It kept us all afloat and kept our creativity rockin’. Kept our imaginations ticking by all of these things that are very important to me at a time when everybody was feeling alone, and scared, and depressed.”
Throughout his virtual tour, Reynolds was able to speak with students from more than 30 schools, learning about their experiences, and found that children, no matter where they come from, have similar interests and hopes. “I got to talk to and learn to think just like y’all. All the kids I spoke to had different experiences in terms of their neighborhoods, in their communities. But we all laugh at the same jokes. We all want to talk about rap music and food and sneakers.”
Despite the ambassadorship typically running for two years, Reynolds felt he hadn’t been able to accomplish what he set out to do because of Covid restrictions and asked for an additional year to finish attaining his goals. With the extra year, Reynolds was eventually able to go on an in-person tour across the country, visiting schools in Mississippi, Maine, Montana, Texas, and many other states. What he took from the tour was that, as divided as our country may seem, people “just want to figure out how to have a human moment with each other. We just want to be proud of where we come from and who we are.”
In the end, Reynolds’s priority with his ambassadorship was to empower children to tell their own stories long after his time as ambassador is up. “My job was simply to put the microphone in your faces and say it’s your turn to let the world know you exist,” Reynolds said. “I can’t do it forever. It’s not going to be on me. It’s showing you [that] you are your own ambassador. It’s my job to just create a space for you to do so, all over this country. And that won’t stop when this is over.”