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Jason Reynolds at Temple Kehillath Israel

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Photo: Cindy Ritter
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Photo: Shoshana Flax
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Photo: Cindy Ritter
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Photo: Cindy Ritter
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Hearing Jason Reynolds speak is a bit like listening to spoken-word poetry, as Cindy and I discovered at last Wednesday’s event at Temple Kehillath Israel*, sponsored by Brookline Booksmith. The hugely prolific, award-winning middle-grade and YA author said he would tell us the story of how he got where he is today, and did so with lots of vivid details (his childhood featured oversugared Kool-Aid and cans of government-surplus peanut butter) and plenty of humor. But he also told us about the more serious side of his early years, recalling the “mass hysteria” of the AIDS crisis and a hazmat sign in front of a neighbor’s house.

And then, his teachers said, “we want you to read this book called Moby-Dick,” and he’d “never met a whale,” never even seen a boat. In the same vein, he’d never met an Atticus Finch but knew lots of Boo Radleys, and felt he’d lived the situation in Lord of the Flies and didn’t trust the author to get it right. The books he encountered didn’t know he existed, he said, so he didn’t read a book until he was eighteen.

Rap music saved his life. He acknowledged that rap can be problematic and “complicated,” but added that the genre — which at the time adults expected to be gone in five years, and which didn’t have a category at the Grammy Awards — saved a generation of kids by giving them a voice and forcing others to acknowledge their existence. He recalled going to the music store with five dollars, coming out with a Queen Latifah album, and listening while he followed along with the liner notes — and deciding he was going to grow up to be Queen Latifah. He began writing his own “Queen Latifah poems,” and over the next few years, as he told us, he went through very difficult times (including deaths of friends as well as addiction, illness, and depression in his family) — “but it’s okay, because I got these Queen Latifah poems.”

He told us about college, and how he “still hadn’t read any books” until a professor gave him Richard Wright’s Black Boy to read; about getting his first publishing contract at twenty-one but giving up on writing soon afterward because of the recession; and about the advice he received to try telling his own stories. Since then, his characters have generally been inspired by real people he knows, often with their real names. “The greatest gift I could give myself is myself,” Jason said. He encouraged the young people present to write their own stories: “I want you to love my stories, but it’s more important to love your own.”

The Q&A portion went more deeply into specific books (including a tantalizing hint that we may see the Track series onscreen!). Jason took questions seriously from young people as well as adults, many of whom were educators. What to do when someone says something hurtful to you? His favorite “disarming tool” is to pretend not to have heard and ask them to repeat it. Has he thought about writing Coach’s story? It would be hard because Coach is an adult, and a prequel about his childhood wouldn’t include the other beloved Track characters — but their stories include elements of Coach’s story. The questions brought up thoughts about reluctant readers and meeting them where they are — with books about Fortnite or whatever else interests them. They also brought up honest observations about biases: he’s been stopped and frisked often in New York (“I write books for kids!” “Well, you fit the description”) and believes it’s much more to do with his race than with his tattoos or clothing.

Stay prolific, Jason Reynolds. We need to hear from you.

Read Jason Reynolds’s 2018 Lesley University commencement speech.

*As this event took place last week, the fact that the venue was a synagogue didn’t seem noteworthy, but now it feels strange to type these words without lingering on them. Like Jason Reynolds’s work and words, this weekend’s tragedy brings up a theme that is dear to my heart: that the opportunities we provide for people from different groups to see each other have a real impact. In short, representation matters.

For more on the Pittsburgh tragedy and on processing it in its aftermath, see Kitty’s Family Reading Post and look to resources from the Association of Jewish Libraries and others.

Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College. She is a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.

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