Since the 2014 publication of his first YA novel, When I Was the Greatest, Jason Reynolds has produced 15 books—a bounty that seems even more impressive considering he has also spent hundreds of days each year visiting schools and prisons, and speaking at conferences and conventions. In 2020, he will add a huge new responsibility to his schedule: on Thursday he will be sworn in as the next National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, taking the reins from Jacqueline Woodson, who has served in the post since 2018.
Reynolds plans to focus on empowering young people in small-town America with a platform he is calling “Grab the Mic: Tell Your Story.”
“When we ask about how to perpetuate reading, our knee-jerk reaction is to just insist that young people should read and I know for a fact that is not working,” Reynolds said. “I travel all over the place and there are lots of well-meaning people who are trying to help kids who don’t want to read, who live in households where reading is not valued, kids in prison, and definitely the wrong thing to do is to tell them to read. Youths don’t work that way. You tell them to read they’ll do anything but read.”
Instead, Reynolds, whose books include Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, a 2019 National Book Award finalist, and Long Way Down, which was both a 2018 Newbery and Printz Honor book, says he tries to make a personal connection with potential readers. As ambassador, he will visit areas that rarely if ever host an author. “I have plenty of colleagues who are terrified or uninterested in going to those places but if we love children you can’t only love the ones who are convenient. That’s disingenuous,” he said. “I’m going to rural America, and we’re going to pick one or two kids, maybe one of the knuckleheads, or the one with the discipline problems, and have them interview me. Ask whatever they want to ask in front of a live audience.”
Instead of explicitly encouraging young people to read, Reynolds says his goal is to create “human moments” with kids by allowing them to connect with him. It’s a strategy he has used repeatedly.
“I’ve been doing a lot of school visits for five years and I always say, ‘Ask away. Every question is on the table.’ You can see the teachers cringe when I say that. But the kids want to know, what kind of car do you have? [Reynolds does not drive.] What kind of sneaker? What’s your favorite video game?” he said. “These are the spaces where young people can talk to me as a person. They find out I’m a real human and that I believe in them and as a result they become willing to invest in the things, these books I’ve made. It’s a backdoor message but it works.”
Reynolds will partner with StoryCorps, an audio archive housed in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, to record interviews with students while on tour. In his early 20s, Reynolds worked as a StoryCorps facilitator, guiding participants through the interview process. “Some of these kids have a lot to express to us about their world,” he said. “They want us to know they love the place they call home, the new Syrian friends they have in Nebraska, about their grandmama, that some of the things people say about where they live are just wrong. Let them tell their stories.”
Reynolds has been in discussion about accepting the ambassador role for about a month. He was sworn to secrecy and could not even share the news with his mother, a teacher at a Maryland elementary school. “I only told her a week ago. She’s in education so I could not risk that she would leak it.”
The national ambassador is selected by Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, based on recommendations from an independent committee comprised this year of Philip Nel, director of the graduate program in children’s literature at Kansas State University; Cristina Nosti, events and marketing director at Books & Books; Karli Pederson, children’s librarian at Milwaukee Public Library; Laura Pegram, publisher of Kweli Journal; Eva Volin, supervising children's librarian at Alameda Free Library, Alameda, Calif.; Emma Kantor, associate children’s book editor at Publishers Weekly; and Woodson. The program was established in 2008 by the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council and its foundation, Every Child a Reader, to emphasize the importance of young people’s literature.
“We couldn’t be more pleased with the selection of Jason Reynolds,” said Carl Lennertz, executive director of Every Child a Reader and the Children’s Book Council. “He embodies everything that we look for in this important position, and every young person he will meet over the next two years will have their hearts and minds lifted.”
Jon Anderson, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, agreed that Reynolds was an ideal choice because of "how he connects with the thousands of young people he meets each year. [He is] a true advocate not only for literacy but for children.”
Reynolds is confident the ambassadorship won’t keep him from writing. “I get work done everywhere—airports, airplanes, hotels, coffee shops,” he said. “I have everything I need: laptop, notebooks, pens.” A native of Washington, D.C., he also plans to continue as an instructor in the MFA Creative Writing program at Lesley University in Boston. He has two books publishing in 2020 —Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (Little, Brown, Mar.), a young readers’ edition of Ibram X. Kendi’s 2016 National Book Award winner; and a graphic novel adaptation of Long Way Down, illustrated by Danica Novgorodoff (Atheneum/Dlouhy, Oct.)
Reynolds will officially accept the position at an inauguration ceremony at 10:30 on January 16 in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. SE, Washington, D.C. Tickets are not required for this event, which is free and open to the public. The event will also be streamed live on the Library’s YouTube site. He will become the seventh person to hold the position following Jon Scieszka (2008–2009), Katherine Paterson (2010–2011), Walter Dean Myers (2012–2013), Kate DiCamillo (2014–2015), Gene Luen Yang (2016–2017), and Woodson.
He is honored to have been chosen but said the real reward is in the work ahead. “I don’t see it as some kind of award or another laurel to lean on,” said Reynolds. “If anything, I just want to do a good job. I’m excited to have this opportunity and to have the resources behind me to make that happen. At the end of my two years I want my presence to have had an impact.”