Jason Reynolds, the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, is upfront about what prompted him to write Stuntboy, In the Meantime, a middle grade novel featuring illustrations by Raúl the Third, who also created the cover art, which is being revealed here. “I am a child of divorce,” Reynolds, 37, said, disclosing that his parents separated when he was a boy. “No one understood how to talk to me about it. What I’m really trying to do is make a story for the kids, a funny story, but parents can also use this book to talk about [divorce]."
According to the 2020 U.S. Census, nearly half of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, although rates have been declining for the past decade. According to data published by the Institute for Family Studies, divorce in the U.S. hit a record low in 2019; this trend has persisted despite the pandemic. But still, Reynolds, said, “We can’t act like it’s not happening, because it is happening.” Not shy about weaving tales for young readers that address difficult subjects, Reynolds is a strong advocate for parents and other adult caregivers to help children better navigate the dissolution of their family units.
In Stuntboy, readers are introduced to protagonist Portico Reeves, who lives in a huge apartment building that he compares to a castle, with his parents, grandmother, and cat. He and his best friend, Zola, who lives in the apartment next door, are obsessed with superheroes and want to emulate their idols in some way. Considering his parents and grandmother to secretly be superheroes, Portico decides to call himself Stuntboy, because, Reynolds explained, “he wants to do the dirty work for the superheroes—put his body on the line so the superheroes can do the real work of saving people.”
After Portico discovers that his parents are breaking up, with his mother intending to move downstairs in the same building, while his father moves upstairs. Reynolds added, Portico feels that he “now has to save his parents. Not their marriage—he needs to save them from each other.”
“Every time Portico enters his apartment after a wonderful day with his friends, his parents are arguing, divvying up their things,” Reynolds noted, “Who gets the couch, who gets the TV, who gets the chair?” Wanting to spare him from witnessing them dicker over their possessions, Portico’s parents tell him that they are talking, or doing something else that cannot include him; in the meantime, they say, he should go elsewhere. “Every time Portico hears ‘in the meantime,’ Reynolds explained, “he hears ‘in the mean time’ as in the ‘not-nice time.’ ” This results in Portico suffering from anxiety, which, not knowing what else to call it, he names “The Frets.” Reynolds said that when The Frets kick in after Portico’s frustrating interactions with his parents, he deals with those feelings by performing “secret super hero stunts.”
“He’s doing the best he can,” Reynolds noted, “in a funny and sweet and charming way, to first understand what’s happening with his parents and then to try to save them.”
A Story Told with Words and Images
While Reynolds has written 14 books for older middle grade and YA readers, including last year, in collaboration with Ibram X. Kendi, his only nonfiction work, Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism and You, Stuntboy is his first foray into illustrated fiction for middle grade readers on the younger end of the spectrum. “I wanted to try to do something different. I try to keep myself entertained,” he said.
Emphasizing how much he admires Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants and Dog Man graphic novel series for young middle grade readers, Reynolds praised Pilkey for entertaining young readers while slyly educating them by using a mash of irreverent words and images. “I wanted to challenge myself. Dav Pilkey is a genius; can I do this my own way?” Reynolds asked himself as he conceptualized Stuntboy.
“I think people underestimate how difficult it is to make the things Pilkey makes,” Reynolds added. “We reduce his work down to fart jokes because no one else has tried to write what he’s written. It takes a lot of talent to do what he does. So I’ve been thinking about him, and about Jeff Kinney and some other people who live in that space where there’s illustration, and there’s story, and really trying to figure out what I want to do.”
Caitlyn Dlouhy, v-p and editorial director for her eponymous imprint and Reynolds’s longtime editor, was “utterly intrigued and utterly delighted” when Reynolds expressed his desire to embark upon such a project. “When Jason steps into a new format or a new writing experience,” she said, “he’s always shifting what’s expected. It never fails to be exciting.”
According to Reynolds, a major impetus for writing a heavily illustrated middle grade novel was that he wanted to “create the biggest umbrella” in terms of an audience. Explaining that he always considers the reading level of his target audience in every book he writes, Reynolds said that Stuntboy “works on that level where you have kids who are struggling readers who say illustrations are helpful; you got kids who love comics; and kids who love reading who say they like that it has more language than a lot of books like this. Some kids will like it because of the emotional layers; other will like it because it is diverse.”
Dlouhy noted that Reynolds is also committed to expanding his reach beyond the “dead-on middle grade and YA” readers for whom he traditionally writes due to popular demand. “He’s got picture books coming out in the future,” she said, “but he wanted to do some books for that in-between age as well, because he heard so often from those kids that they want books from him too. He takes that to heart.”
Enter Raúl the Third
Rather than relying upon the publisher to line up an illustrator for the project, Reynolds contacted a trusted friend, Raúl the Third, asking him if he knew of any appropriate illustrators to work with him. “I wanted to do this on my own,” he said, “so when I went to the publishing company, I could present them with my vision without anyone taking it away. Then there was that moment, when I was like, ‘Well, Raúl, if you want to do it....’ Raúl understood the story intrinsically; he understood it on an experiential level.”
Wanting a quick turnaround so that he could move forward with submitting the manuscript, because he had been “kicking it around for a while” and wanted to “get it done,” Reynolds disclosed that when Raúl the Third agreed to illustrate it, he told him, “ ‘We gotta get down, you need to strap yourself in.’ Raúl said ‘No sweat.’ I think an hour after our first conversation, Raúl sent me a mockup of Stuntboy. We were rolling. And that was it.”
As for Raúl the Third, who describes himself as being in “final art mode,” fine-tuning the illustrations, Stuntboy represents to him “an introduction to a sprawling universe of characters.” The action takes place primarily inside an apartment building, “with the driving force behind everything being Portico Reeves,” who is secretly Stuntboy. “So the idea for the cover is to share with the reader that they are about to enter this brand-new superhero universe.”
“This book is filled with so many different ideas. There are layers upon layers of meaning in Jason’s words,” Raúl the Third noted. “It’s my job to take these words and add my own layer of meaning through how I interpret them.” For instance, he said, in the spread featuring Stuntboy leaping through the air, with the Reeves family’s possessions swirling around him, “that hurricane is real, but it’s also amplified by the thoughts that are going through Portico’s mind at that moment in time.”
While Dlouhy acknowledged that she has already discussed a Stuntboy sequel with Reynolds and “maybe tippy toes” towards a third book, she insists that it is “really hard to predict” if Stuntboy will expand into a series. “We don’t even know what Jason’s time will look like in two years,” she pointed out.
As for Reynolds, he leaves the fate of Stuntboy up to his readers, saying, “The kids get to determine what they want and what they like. The bosses in my world, they’re all like 10 years old, 13 years old. I work for them.”
Stuntboy, in the Meantime by Jason Reynolds, illus. by Raul the Third. S&S/Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy, $13.99 Nov. ISBN 978-1-53-441816-5