Art Talk with Jason Reynolds

By Rebecca Sutton
Man in black jacket and dreadlocks sits smiling with his head resting on one hand

Jason Reynolds. Photo by James J. Reddington 

As a young person, Jason Reynolds was a reluctant reader—he speaks frequently about how he did not read a full novel until he was in college. However, he was never a reluctant listener. His art form of choice was rap music, which he listened to enthusiastically. It was in listening to the rhythms of rap and seeing how lyrics were formatted in liner notes that he realized rap was, at its essence, simply poetry set to a beat.

And thus began Reynolds’s obsession with what he describes as the “intoxicating” power of language. He began writing poetry at age nine, and published several collections of poetry before finding his groove within young adult and middle-grade literature, writing the very books he would have loved to have read as a boy. His 13 books for young people—including works of poetry and novels in verse—do not shy away from tough topics like police brutality, violence, and personal loss, empowering readers who might feel trapped in similar challenging circumstances.

Now, as the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Reynolds is helping young people find their own story, which he hopes will serve as a gateway to a lifelong appreciation for writing and reading. Reynolds, who is a Newbery Honor recipient, National Book Award for Young People's Literature finalist, and Coretta Scott King Award winner, among others, recently spoke with us about his career.

NEA: You’ve spoken frequently about how you didn’t read a full book until you were a teenager. What inspired you to open up Black Boy and not only begin reading, but keep reading?

JASON REYNOLDS: I had a teacher who told me to read the first five pages. Black Boy is a book where on the second page, the narrator burns the house down. And that was it. I needed there to be immediate action. I found books to be pretty boring, so to read a book that was exciting immediately was all I really needed to hook me in.

NEA: What do you think makes a book boring?

REYNOLDS: I think it depends. You hear writers say, "I write for me." Well that's cool, but then you should be the reader of the book. The truth is, I don't necessarily write just for me. I try to be honest for me, I try to flex certain literary devices for me. But I'm telling a story for everybody else. In terms of the actual storytelling, I'm thinking about the reader. I want the reader to feel transported and I want the reader to feel transfixed. In order to that, I have to have the reader in mind. If I were to hold novels up to all the other storytelling mediums, whether it be movies or plays, there are certain beats that are used to make sure the reader or the viewer stays engaged. Why would we treat books any differently? Let's put something interesting in the first act of the story. I just don't know why we wouldn't do these things. If we don't do them, that's fine, but we can't be upset when a 15-year-old is like, "This book feels kind of boring to me."

NEA: What you think makes a book not boring?

REYNOLDS: I think interest, I think excitement. It doesn't have to be an explosion, but just some sort of conflict, some kind of tension. I think language makes books wonderful. If the language can sing off the page or if the language can attach itself to the psyche of the reader or the self of the reader or the heart of the reader, I think you can almost do anything and the reader will continue to read because the language can be so intoxicating. I think characters that feel real, and not caricatures of people. These are just basic elements that I think make stories work.

NEA: I think poetry often gets a bad rap, especially among young people. How do you hope your novels in verse might help change perceptions of poetry?

REYNOLDS: I think poetry gets a bad rap because of the way it's taught in school, because of the poets that they choose to teach in school. If we realize that there are all different categories of poetry, different traditions of poetry, I don't think poetry would have the rap that it has. I think academia might be ruining the potential for poetry to be the number-one literary genre.

[My novel in verse] Long Way Down is storytelling, it's straight-ahead language. It's using metaphor, repetition, alliteration, onomatopoeia—all the things that are poetic devices—but it's telling a story and it's breaking it into 10 or 20 words on a page. I think every person on Earth who reads wants to feel like they're turning those pages rapidly. If you can turn the pages, you keep going. Everybody likes turning pages. That's one of the psychological parts about reading—it's the feel of turning the pages, and watching the book become thinner and thinner in terms of what you have left to read. It's a physical manifestation of a progress clock. Who doesn't like to see their progress? But that progress needs to be catalyzed, and poetry is a way to catalyze progress, because it's only 20, 30 words per page.

NEA: I’ve read that you really entered writing through music. Can you tell me more about how music turned you on to writing poetry?

REYNOLDS: Rap music specifically. Rap music is poetry. Nowadays we have the ultimate shut-up card because we have Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer to say, "Now what?" But the truth is, realized that even the format, looking at the way it's broken down into first verse, first chorus, some sort of bridge is no different than certain poems or limericks or sonnets. All these things are connected. So I was a young person who discovered rap music and started to write it. [It introduced me to] the idea of sound. All of my books have a musical undertone. There's a way the words sort of rise and ebb and flow on the page—that's all from poetry, as a mix with music. Where are the drums in this book? What's the beat? What's the timbre? How many beats per minute are in this book? If a person had to read it out loud, how would it sound, how would it flow, how fast would it move? These are ideas that I took from music.

NEA: It sounds safe to say that music continues to influence your writing.

REYNOLDS: Of course. Music taught me intuition. "If it don't sound good, it ain't good"—that's my theory. No matter how well it's written, if it doesn't sound good when I read it out loud, then it's not good. That's music. I don't have enough education to believe I know enough about the science of writing to not read my work out loud and let my gut do the work. Intuition is key.

NEA: Beyond music, what have been some other major influences or inspirations for you?

REYNOLDS: Ultimately, a lot of my work is coming from my family and true stories about my neighborhood and things I've experienced. Then as a reader, there are certain books that have influenced me and certain writers. James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Walter Dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson, Jesmyn Ward—these to me are some of the greatest writers that ever lived, and I've been to learn a great deal from reading them and stealing from them and mimicking them. That's the way it works—it's art. We can emulate our heroes until we carve out our own name. Those are my heroes. [I read them] to see what my possibilities are, to see if I'm pushing myself.

So there’s music, but there’s everything. It's theater. Movies—I learned a lot from Alfred Hitchcock. I learned a lot from Stanley Kubrick and translating that into literature. How can you create discomfort without having to say it, without having to spell it out? That was Alfred Hitchcock's whole thing—how do you shift the frame to create dissonance for the viewer without having to say that something scary is happening? How do you use music in movies to create tension and how does that translate on the page? For me it might be space. How you use space between words, between paragraphs to do the exact same thing that music does in scary movies—build tension? So it's really trying to figure out how to use other mediums and other art forms and translate them onto the page. Everything's open though. I live a curious, wide-open life so that I can pull from all these kinds of things.

NEA: In addition to reading your work out loud, how else would you describe your creative process?

REYNOLDS: It's for the most part early in the morning, 6 o'clock in the morning, sitting at my desk. I've got my notebooks, I've got my computer, I've got my coffee. Typically for me, it's all about who I want to write about. Who is the person? I [start with] people. Not a product, not a plotline. It's people. So the first thing I do is invent a person. Who's telling the story? And then what complicates that person's life? Then I think about what's the environment and what's the relationship between the environment, this person, and the conflict. From there, I start to build the story.

NEA: In terms of the types of conflicts you write about, how do you hope your books might help young people facing challenges like violence, police brutality, loss, etc.?

REYNOLDS: Ultimately, I'm not interested in teaching much of anything. Not because I don't care, but because that's just not what I write books for. For me, it's all about acknowledgement, it's all about bearing witness to young people's lives. I think sometimes what young people need more than anything is someone to say, "I understand. I see it. I know it." I don't always have a fix for it, just like you don't feel like you have a fix for it. But there's value in knowing that you're not alone. There's value in knowing that there are a lot of people feeling the way you feel. And that can be empowering. That's really what I always am trying to do—not necessarily give them morals or teach them valuable lessons. I'm just trying to stand as witness to the truths of young people's lives.

NEA: And what about a young person who might not have experienced any of these challenges—how do you hope your books might affect them?

REYNOLDS: For them, it's about making sure they have a certain kind of empathy. Because whether or not they've experienced these types of challenges, they'll be around people who have. And when they're around people who have, they'll be slow to judge. When they see stuff on the news, they'll be slow to judge. Or when they hear stuff coming from their parents' mouths that they know doesn't make sense, they'll be slow to judge. This is the real work: that the kids who grew up in these kinds of communities or who had these kinds of issues no longer need to feel ashamed, and the kids who never touched this kind of stuff no longer have to feel afraid.

NEA: Why is it so important for readers to see themselves reflected in books?

REYNOLDS: Ultimately, because if we don't see ourselves in books, it's like someone saying you don't exist, period. Your life doesn't matter; your story doesn't matter. It's the same thing if we don't see ourselves in movies or we don't see ourselves in music. Erasure is dismissal. How am I ever supposed to believe that I can make a thing happen when I don't ever get examples of seeing myself make things happen? Even in fiction, let alone in the real world. Everyone's story and identity and culture deserves to be seen and celebrated and valued and praised, especially as young people. They definitely need to see it.

NEA: Do you have any advice for a young person who thinks they hate reading?

REYNOLDS: Yeah, they don't hate reading. They just hate being bored. I get it. First of all, we have to figure out what exactly you mean when you say you hate reading. Reading what? Reading anything, or reading novels, or reading what they tell you to read in school? Most kids say that, but if I were to give you a book on Fortnite, from my experience, you'll read it cover to cover. And that's okay.

So then the question becomes how come I can't figure out how to give you a book on Fortnite? If that's the thing that's going to get you reading, so be it. I'm less concerned with literature and more concerned with literacy. If you're a nonfiction person, that's perfectly alright. Nonfiction runs the industry anyway. That's what a lot of people are reading. So this idea that you have to get them to read Hemingway I think is misplaced and a little naive. I haven't read some of those books, and I'm not made a worse person for it. But having a relationship with literature has made me a much better person. So let's focus on the important thing, which is literacy.

NEA: What are your goals for your time as Ambassador for Young People's Literature?

REYNOLDS: My goals are right in line with what we're talking about. I know that my job is supposed to try and [encourage young] people to read and write. The truth of the matter is that that's no different than what their teachers tell them every day. So I'm taking a different approach. My approach is to allow them to understand that they have a place in storytelling. That they actually have a voice and a story to tell, and that their story is just as valuable as any of the stories that their teachers and parents and myself are telling them to read. Their story is more valuable than mine, it's more valuable than the books that they read.

I don't think they're telling young people that. If we can convince them to believe that who they are and what they have to say is the most expensive thing they'll ever own, then to read someone else's story feels a lot less daunting. It's like anything else. Once you learn how to cook a meal, you can appreciate or discriminate a chef more clearly. People who really understand food because they cook it themselves really know what they're eating when they go to restaurants and have a greater appreciation for it, whether they like it or not. So my goal is to say, “You have a story. Your story is valuable. It deserves to be heard.” So that when they pick up a story that somebody else wrote, they can see it with clear eyes. It's a very different approach, it's going to be a lot of interviewing, it's going to be a lot of talking and conversations about everyday life things so they can put a human identity to the pages of the book and know that I'm a regular person, just like them. I'm not extraordinary, I'm not exceptional. I'm just like them. I just took ahold of my story.

NEA: Anything else you wished I'd asked or would like to add?

REYNOLDS: At the end of the day, for me, I do this sheerly out of one, my love for children, first and foremost. And two, out of my obsessive belief that we can really make magical things happen with language. I am constantly trying to figure out how to crack the next bit of that code, to make something incredible happen just by putting one word next to another.