This post is an article from the Spring 2018 issue of the OYAN Review and has been edited slightly for publication on the blog. It was written by Kristy Kemper Hodge at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library.
It was Saturday night of the OASL Fall Conference, and Jason Reynolds towered on stage. He regaled us with the story of how he went from an obstinate non-reader to the author powerhouse he is today. The story begins with a much younger Jason, who grew up in a neighborhood that was dangerous and full of perils like gangs, shootings, drugs, and death. Where young men walked on one side of the law or the other, dealing and gang-banging or keeping their heads down, going to school, and staying out of trouble. Jason was able to keep out of trouble, and focus on school, but he was no reader. Why read? Why bother when there were no books about people like him? Who looked like him, talked like him, walked like him, lived like him? Or about people like his friends, family, and the people in his neighborhood? What could books possibly offer?
Then came Queen Latifah. Thus began Jason’s lifelong love of rap music and a love of language, of words, and of writing. When Jason discovered a rapper whose music spoke his life and his world, he couldn’t get enough. He listened, he learned the lyrics. He decided then and there to become what he revered. He was going to be the next Queen Latifah. And he told his friends and family so.
Now, we know Jason Reynolds as a prolific and successful author who writes much needed books about characters of color, often about tough topics, like gun violence, domestic violence, police violence, racial violence, broken family relationships, and trying to figure out how to live in hard neighborhoods. What I didn’t know until hearing him speak is that he was nearly a college dropout. That, after moving to New York, he very nearly gave up on writing after just one rejection. That he felt like teachers, librarians, and other adults failed him and so many others when those same grown-ups could have made a difference by handing them books that reflected his world at a much younger age. By promoting rap music as the much-needed answer to a magnificently huge gap in literature that expressed the life of young people living like Jason, rather than declaring rap as a decline in culture and a danger to youth. By helping direct them to books and music that mirrored the experiences of Jason and his community.
Thankfully, there was Queen Latifah.
Thankfully, there was Walter Dean Myers’s son, who challenged and encouraged Jason to keep writing.
Thankfully, there was Jason’s mom, who allowed him to move back home.
Thankfully, there is Jason Reynolds, writing about the youth he would have wanted to read
about as a kid and teen.
And thankfully, there are teachers and librarians everywhere, helping young people find Jason’s books and stories, whether they mirror the lives of those youth, or whether they open windows into lives unlike their own, so that they learn, empathize, and explore the experiences of their peers elsewhere.
Check out Jason’s books for teens and middle grade readers:
- All American Boys
- As Brave As You
- The Boy in the Black Suit
- Long Way Down
- Miles Morales: Spider-Man
- When I Was the Greatest