With three novels coming out this fall, you might never guess that Jason Reynolds didn’t like to read books in elementary school, or even high school.
“It wasn’t that the teachers were bad. From what I can remember, they were pretty good,” Reynolds recalls. “It was about the selection of books. It was about not seeing my young life reflected back to me: my family dynamics, the noise and complexities of my neighborhood, the things I loved, like ice cream trucks and Kool-Aid.” Now 33, Reynolds has made it his mission to make sure today’s students don’t encounter the same kind of book desert he found himself in as a kid.
Reynolds has published five critically acclaimed novels in three years. This fall he will add to that fast-growing body of work with Miles Morales (Disney-Hyperion, Aug.), a Spiderman spinoff; Patina (Simon & Schuster/Caitlin Dlouhy, Aug.), the second installment in the series that began with Ghost, a finalist for the National Book Award; and Long Way Down (S&S/Caitlin Dlouhy, Oct.), a standalone YA novel written in verse.
Long Way Down follows 15-year-old Will as he gets into the elevator of his building with a gun. He is intent on avenging his brother’s death.“The whole book takes place in the elevator over the course of a minute,” Reynolds says. “That’s all the time you need to stop and reflect before doing something that will change your life forever. Most of these young kids have no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
Reynolds’s own trajectory took a dramatic turn during his college years at the University of Maryland, where he earned a degree in English and worked part-time at the now-closed Karibu Books. The store, which specialized in African-American literature, was in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood where he grew up.
Until he took a job at Karibu, Reynolds says the major influences on his creative life were rappers, especially Queen Latifah and Tupac Shakur. Rap spoke far more directly to him than the books he had been assigned to read in high school like Don Quixote. But after studying the work of black poets like Langston Hughes in college, he turned his energies toward writing and reciting poetry, all over campus. “Yeah, I was that guy,” he admits. Working at Karibu introduced him to a field of literature he had never before encountered—stories written about the black experience by black writers.
“I had the opportunity to find all the different parts of me, culturally, in one space. I could read about [the experiences of] my grandparents and my parents, but I could also pair that with newer stories like Coldest Winter Ever or PUSH, which I don’t necessarily like so much now, but which was refreshing to read back then,” Reynolds says. “And that was enough, not just for me to bite down on and claim as mine, but to spark my curiosity to go and read other books that were outside of my bubble.”
Today, 8–9:30 a.m. Jason Reynolds will speak at the Children’s Book & Author Breakfast, at the Special Events Hall.
Today, 11–11:45 a.m. Reynolds will sign at the Simon & Schuster booth (1420, 1421).
Today, 4–5 p.m. Reynolds will sign at the Disney-Hyperion booth (1709).