Authors Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi met at the 2016 National Book Awards festivities in New York City. Reynolds’s Ghost, the first book in his Track series, was shortlisted for the Young People’s Literature award; Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas received the nonfiction prize.
“When I heard Kendi speak at the finalists’ reading, I knew immediately he had written something really special and important,” Reynolds says. After Kendi moved to Washington, D.C., where Reynolds lives, he reached out with a proposal: would Reynolds write a young readers’ edition of his award-winning book? The resulting children’s book, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (Little, Brown) is due out in March.
“I thought a novelist could make this history accessible to everyday teens,” says Kendi, a professor at American University and founding director of the school’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center. “Not only would his book reach teens but it would move them to be part of the struggle, and part of the solution.”
Intimidated by the idea, Reynolds initially turned down the offer. “He had written a masterpiece,” Reynolds says. “I’m not an academic or a scholar. I wasn’t even that great a student. All the skills I would need to write a book like this, I didn’t have.”
But, believing he had found the right person for the project, Kendi persisted. “[Reynolds] is deeply reflective and mission-oriented,” he says. “I knew that type of writer and thinker could pull it off.” After being asked numerous times, Reynolds agreed.
Like the original, Reynolds’s adaptation chronicles how racist thinking seeped into the American psyche and has been used to justify and rationalize some of the nation’s most deeply entrenched discrimination. Both books are structured around five historical figures: Puritan minister Cotton Mather, early American statesman Thomas Jefferson, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and activists W.E.B. DuBois and Angela Davis. Reynolds calls his version a “remix” and cautions that it is not a history book. He describes it more as “a book that contains history, a history directly connected to our lives as we live them right this minute. This is a present book, a book about the here and now.”
Reynolds hadn’t read Stamped from the Beginning before he met Kendi. “So much of it was mind-blowing to me,” Reynolds says. “All that information was new to me. You think you know Thomas Jefferson. You have paragraphs that come to mind when you hear the name. Uh-uh. Who we think they are is not who they were.”
To get his version the right length for young readers, Reynolds needed to cut more than half the text while preserving the continuum of historical events that bring us to today. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the first draft did not work,” he says.
Reynolds recalls that his editor encouraged him, saying, “Write a Jason Reynolds book. Trust your gut.” He adds, “If I got the information wrong, they would be there to make sure I got it right. [Little, Brown] pushed for me to do my thing and, finally, my intuition kicked in.” Stamped is Reynolds’s first work of nonfiction.
In many ways, Kendi considers the young readers’ edition a whole new creation. “There are very few lines that are taken directly from my book, which was well over 500 pages,” he says. “For him to take a book that size and not only scale it back, but also transform the language so young people will connect with it, is nothing short of extraordinary.”
Both authors would like the book to find a place in American classrooms. “I’m hoping the social studies teachers use it,” Reynolds says. “If we can get teachers to introduce it, that will give the kids a safe space to hold conversations about what they learn.”
Kendi wants to reach kids like himself, who are committed to racial justice at a young age. “I want them to have a clear-eyed sense of what the problem is. There are so many people whose journey doesn’t even begin until they get to college. Let’s arm them intellectually, beginning in middle school.”