Who Jason Reynolds Writes His Best-sellers For
Jason Reynolds, the author of many best-selling books for children and young adults, likes to tell certain stories to audiences at his events. One is about the Black girl who asked Reynolds, who is also Black, if he ever wished that his skin were a different color. (“Absolutely not,” his response began, “and here is why we have every reason to be proud, despite the pain.”) Another story features his aunt, who tried in vain to interest eight-year-old Jason in classic books like “Treasure Island,” “Little Women,” and “Moby-Dick.” (The bygone worlds of these books “didn’t make any sense,” according to Reynolds. “I wanted to read about the ice-cream truck.”) He often discloses that he never read a book from beginning to end until he was seventeen: it was Richard Wright’s landmark “Black Boy,” from 1945, which snared him with its shocking opening (a little boy about to burn down his grandmother’s house) and its depiction of a childhood he recognized. Occasionally, fielding a question he’s been asked many times, he listens attentively, pauses, breathes deeply, and says, “All right, here’s the truth.”
His ability to connect his own experiences with those of the young people he writes for, and to address his readers with patience and respect, has made him a superstar in the world of children’s lit. Since 2014, Reynolds has published thirteen books, which have sold more than six million copies. “Look Both Ways,” from 2019, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won Britain’s Carnegie Medal, one of the most prestigious prizes for children’s writing. Last year, the Library of Congress named Reynolds the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a two-year appointment that has beamed him into schools, libraries, and book festivals around the country. (The coronavirus pandemic turned a planned tour into a series of virtual events.)
Reynolds’s young protagonists are Black. Sometimes they are comfortably middle class, if not quite “Cosby Show” genteel; sometimes they lead lives touched by crime or poverty, their families fractured by divorce or incarceration. The books provide neither role models nor cautionary tales, and they are written in a hip-hop-inflected teen argot—Reynolds’s interactions with kids keep his references fresh. The “Track” quartet of novels, about a rag-tag track-and-field team, consists of four discrete coming-of-age stories that form a collective document of contemporary urban Black life. In “As Brave as You,” a stand-alone novel from 2016, two brothers from New York City, Genie and Ernie, spend a summer with their grandparents in rural Virginia so that their parents can repair their faltering marriage. (“They were ‘having problems,’ which Genie knew was just parent-talk for maybe/possibly/probably divorcing. . . . When his mother first told him about the ‘problems,’ all Genie could think about was what his friend Marshé Brown told him when her parents got divorced, and how she never saw her father again.”)
The books are both frank and age-appropriate. In the young-adult novels, a boy might fret about when he will lose his virginity; elementary-school-age readers will find stories of chaste romance or school-cafeteria politics, leavened with potty humor. Reynolds’s imperative, always, is to entertain his readers. “What’s going to stop them from picking up their phone?” he said. “What’s going to stop them from turning on a two-minute YouTube clip? I got to make that same stimuli happen on a page.”
In March, 2020, Reynolds published “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” an adaptation for young readers of Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped from the Beginning,” the National Book Award-winning study of the invention of race and racism. It appeared just before the murder of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, which led to nationwide protests against police brutality. An explicitly political work of nonfiction, “Stamped” was a departure from Reynolds’s previous books, but it preserved the writer’s vernacular style: “Before we begin, let’s get something straight,” he writes. “This is not a history book. I repeat, this is not a history book. At least not like the ones you’re used to reading in school.”
Jacqueline Woodson, the MacArthur-winning writer who preceded Reynolds as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, described his novels as conversations with his young readers. The dynamic he fosters is not the same as the one between a student and the canon—the value of the great books we are assigned in school is held as inviolable, yet they are generally indifferent to the lived realities of readers. Reynolds “is telling the reader that he sees them,” Woodson told me. “This is the life he knows, the world he knows, and it’s the truth, and therefore it’s legit.”
Reynolds is six feet three, with dreadlocks he hasn’t cut in years. He favors black jeans and black tees, offset by statement sneakers. He lives in a narrow town house in Washington, D.C., that is full of orderly clutter; its walls are lined with contemporary art work by Bisa Butler, a portraitist who uses African and African American textile and quilting techniques, and Fahamu Pecou, who is known for his bold, intensely colorful paintings of Black men. Reynolds’s collection also includes mid-century West African photographs of young couples, dazzlingly dressed, kissing or holding hands, and family artifacts, such as the unfinished pack of cigarettes that was in his grandfather’s pocket when he died, framed behind glass. This year, Reynolds appeared on PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow” with a typewritten letter from Langston Hughes, signed in green ink.
Born in 1983, Reynolds grew up in Oxon Hill, a Maryland suburb of D.C. that was hit hard by the aids and crack epidemics. He remembered his neighborhood as “an all-Black community, dealing with all the things—you just happen to have a yard.” He spoke of both of his parents with awe. His father, Allen, who had an older daughter and son from previous relationships, was the parent who handled breakfast and school drop-off. He was big on hugs and kisses, but also impossibly cool: “My father was covered in tons of tattoos, gold chains, he rode motorcycles, he had guitars and tight pants and the whole thing, right?”
Allen spent part of Reynolds’s childhood attaining his doctorate in psychology, while Reynolds’s mother, Isabell, assumed the role of household manager. “I thought my mom had all the money, because we never went without food. But that’s because she understood how to use coupons, she understood how to buy things off-season. We had a house, you know what I mean? If you pull up, if you go around the corner, you might meet somebody who has a lot less. But it didn’t matter, because we all live in the same neighborhood.” His mother looked out for others. “She had the neighborhood house. She fed everybody, she made sure everybody was taken care of,” he said.
When Reynolds was ten years old, his parents split up. He didn’t foresee the divorce, and he felt betrayed by the collapse of what he had believed to be a happy family. He grew distant from his father, who remarried and eventually had another son.