In a keynote as entertaining and imaginative as his award-winning books, poet and YA author Jason Reynolds kicked off the 2019 American Library Association Annual Conference on June 21 in Washington DC by urging librarians to help their patrons build “sacred” spaces in their hearts and minds.

“Maybe, what librarians really are, are architects. And maybe, libraries truly are warehouses where we build human libraries—walking, talking libraries,” Reynolds told the standing room only audience at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. “What does this mean? Well, let's talk about what a library is. There’s a reference desk—wouldn't it be incredible if young people walked around with their own Reference Desk right here?” he said, pointing to his heart, “that they could tap into it when they need an answer, that they could tap into when they felt lost, they could tap into when searching for something that felt so far away?”

As he began his talk, Reynolds conceded he was nervous about delivering such a major address to a large audience—after all, he said his publicist at Simon & Schuster told him last year’s ALA opening keynote was delivered by Michelle Obama. But after making a joke about Obama “cheating” because she was interviewed by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden for her opening keynote last year, Reynolds got rolling, delivering an intensely personal, poetic keynote “in five parts” that touched on family, religion, his closest friends and relationships, the power of narrative, and the central, “sacred” role libraries play in people’s lives.

Among his central themes—that throughout history sacred spaces—including libraries—have come under attack. But falling back on a lesson from his mother, Reynolds spoke of creating safe spaces within ourselves, spaces fortified by diverse narratives that cannot be so easily destroyed by those whose power is threatened, spaces where “all are accepted” and "no one is turned away."

A National Book Award finalist and a prolific,bestselling author, Reynolds is well-known to librarians. His 2014 debut novel, When I was The Greatest, won the ALA's 2015 John Steptoe Award for New Talent. And in the following years, he published the bestselling Track series, Ghost, Lu, Patina, and Sunny. He is also the author of the Marvel Comics graphic novel Miles Morales: Spider-Man.

His new book, Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, will be published by Simon & Schuster in October.

Libraries serve as safe spaces—imagine what it would be like if we trained young people to grow up to actually be safe spaces?

In an especially powerful moment, Reynolds likened his years of rooftop conversations with his closest childhood friend to the work of a library.

“What were were actually doing was exchanging narratives. He was putting his books in my stacks. I was putting my books in his stacks,” he said. "And I am so grateful for him. So grateful to walk around with narratives that are not like my own, but still share parts of me. It's an incredible feeling to know that I hold someone’s stories, stories that I can use to be more empathetic.”

Reynolds closed by stressing the power of libraries to foster empathy.

“Libraries serve as safe spaces—imagine what it would be like if we trained young people to grow up to actually be safe spaces?” he said. “Imagine what it would be like if young people were safe havens for their families and friends, the people around them, for the homelessness, and all the kids who have less than them. Imagine what it would be like if they were the spaces that you work in. Imagine it, because the truth of the matter is, is just like the Library of Alexandria was destroyed, just like people have been persecuted, the truth is, unfortunately, we can't guarantee that all of your buildings are going to stay. So we have an obligation to make sure that if for some reason, God forbid, they don’t stay, that young people understand the library.”

The 2019 ALA Annual Conference runs through Tuesday, June 25.