Kai Wright: Hey, gang, a quick housekeeping note before you dive into this week's show. You may have heard me saying over the past few weeks that we now live stream the show on WNYC's YouTube channel each week. We are super excited about that. I do hope you'll tune in for it when you're down for a live experience. But alongside that change, we're making a change to the podcast feed as well because we get it that if you're listening on demand, you want more control over when and what you download. Starting this week, we'll drop individual segments into the feed rather than the whole show each week.
You'll get our lead segment on Mondays as usual. Then, later in the week, you'll get the second segment. If there are more than two segments, we'll figure that out when the time comes, but you get the idea. Hopefully, that gives all you podcast listeners, a little more of the control we know you prefer. When you want the whole show or you're down for a live, listen, head on over to YouTube. Either way, I just ask that you lean in and listen actively.
If you hear something that sparks a thought or a question or a story about yourself, speak up, email us, call us, tweet us, whatever works for you, but please don't keep it to yourself because maybe it will help someone else in the community. Maybe it'll give us an idea for what we need to produce next. That's it. Here's this week's lead segment.
Youtuber 1: Hello, everyone. How are y'all doing today? Well, I'm doing amazing because I just finished another outstanding book. This book is called Ghost.
Youtuber 2: This month, we'll be reading Sunny by Jason Reynolds.
Youtuber 3: Stuntboy, in the Meantime, it's by Jason Reynolds probably heard of him before.
Youtuber 4: Right now, a lot of people are bringing up the fact that Black Lives Matter and basically what this book is about-
Youtuber 5: We got this book right here. I'm just going to [inaudible 00:01:52].
Youtuber 7: I recommend to read this book. Now, in my database, I say 10 out of 10, enjoyed reading every page of it.
Youtuber 4: It's still very relevant in today. I think it's very important to read this book.
Youtuber 1: I love this book so much and I think you guys should definitely add this to your reading list for the summer.
Speaker 4: If you go to your local library, be sure to ask for Jason Reynolds.
Kai: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. Those voices are just a sampling of the young SweepSmart YouTubers who are talking about our guests tonight. They are just a sampling of young people everywhere who are super fans of Jason Reynolds. He's published more than a dozen books for young readers since his 2014 debut to many of those readers, and frankly, to many parents and educators, his books are groundbreaking and essential. He crafts these rich varied and black worlds built around black protagonists from all walks of life, which is sadly, still all too uncommon for this genre of publishing.
It's also notable though, how broadly relatable these stories have proven to a wildly diverse audience of readers, including great mini adults like himself. Now, Jason Reynolds has made a four-part podcast it's called Radiotopia Presents: My Mother Made Me, and in it, we learn more of his own story through the prism of his relationship with his mom. Jason, thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about your work.
Jason Reynolds: Thank y'all for having me. It's good to be here.
Kai: I feel particularly grateful because one thing I immediately learned from your podcast is you're a little skeptical of all these podcasts and radio shows out here in these streets now. I'm glad we could convince you to make time for us. I have to say, I hear your contribution to this trove as really kind of a collection of intimate essays about what you've learned from your mom, both positive and negative lessons. You typically spend Sundays with her, right?
Kai: We've taken you away from that. Can you just set the table for our audience? How would you introduce your mom to us?
Jason: Oof. I think we're talking about a 76-year-old giant of a woman, not in stature, but in spirit. She's one of these women who has seen a lot of things in her life, have experienced many things, have studied many things, and therefore, has always had a left-of-center bent on the way that she views life and death. I think if nothing more, she's an interesting, loving person who I hope people will say has birthed and raised an interesting loving son.
Kai: Have you always been such close friends? You describe her as one of your best friends. Has that always been true?
Jason: Yes, she's always treated me like a person. I was her son and it felt very mother/son, but I think if I were being honest, it also felt just as equally friendly. This is somebody that I love, and therefore, someone I trust, and therefore, someone I can figure out how to communicate with, and can laugh with, and can wrestle with in terms of ideas, and the ways that one might go about life. Our relationships is very young, open communicative doors, all of that kind of stuff has been what built this archetype.
Kai: It's so funny to hear you say that too because one of the tropes of Black life is as kids, is our parents saying, "I'm not your friend, I'm your parent."
Kai: You're describing a very different relationship.
Jason: Yes, I think she was more like I am your friend and your parent. I get to pick and choose which I need to push to the forefront at any given time.
Kai: One thing you say that she taught you was your mantra, which is I can do anything.
Jason: I can do anything. Yes.
Kai: It's such a powerful idea to teach a young person, especially a Black boy. We learn in the podcast that it's also a burden for you as an adult trying to be healthy. Can you talk about that a little bit? What is the up and the downside of this mantra your mom gave you, "I can do anything"?
Jason: I think that when you learn as a young person, when that's your mantra when that is the thing that is tethered to your identity, when that is the thing that is woven into the fibers of your constitution since you were a very little boy, it's hard to undo that, but what is never taught along the way with such a mantra and such sort of focus and vision that I can do anything, discernment isn't always taught, pacing isn't always taught, balance isn't always taught, patience isn't always taught. I've given this battery that says you can go and do anything you want to do.
There should have been some commas that came after that. You know what I mean? You can do what you want to do and you can do it in a way that is healthy, if you learn to balance your life. All of that was left off. As a matter of fact, to that, I can do anything was my mother's who at the time was very much in the church. It was my mother's way of getting me ready for the rest of that scripture, which is through Christ, which strengthens me. That's what it was, there was a comma there.
This was how she started it off. Now, I know the comma for me at this point in my life should be, if you find balance and health, mentally and physically.
Kai: In this regard, because you talk a lot about this in the podcast. I want to play a clip from the podcast where you and your mom, you talk about the catch-22 of wanting to be useful to people and having a life dedicated to service. I think this is from the second episode or maybe it's the end of the first episode, but either way, take a listen.
Jason: Let me ask you this. What do you think makes you feel joy because that's what I'm trying to figure out?
Isabell Reynolds: I think the main thing, Jace, when it boils down to that makes me feel good is to feel needed, more needed than wanted.
Jason: More needed than wanted. I get that. I really, really do. It's like I said, there's nothing better than the moments I feel useful to the world. It almost makes me wonder if service is addictive, a drug that causes some strange endorphin rush, or if service has become a crutch I use to prop up some insecurity I'm unaware of.
Kai: That's Jason Reynolds talking to his mom, that's the end of episode 1 of the podcast. Jason, I found that so incredibly relatable as somebody who was raised by people who deeply valued being in service to others, to our community, to each other. It's just that tension. Can you talk more about the tension you described there in that desire to be useful?
Jason: Of course. When I was a young man, my mom would always say everyone's purpose in life is the same, it's to be of service. The vehicle from which that service comes is the tricky part. That's what you're trying to find, but our jobs are all the same job. Now, what's interesting about that though, is that if I really believe that my life is meant to be a life in service, what I also have to understand is that I can't allow service to become a crutch for me to never have to deal with the fact that there are other things happening with the way that my life is progressing as far as my career is concerned.
What do I mean by that? What I mean is if you can couch everything-- It's the same way we do children, if you can couch everything into children, if you can say I'm doing it for the kids, then you'll give yourself an excuse to do everything. You'll give yourself an excuse to never say no and to never have to say no. The same goes for being of service, it's something that we value and we see as something that is honorable and something with merit, and that comes with a certain level of gravitas.
When really what it can do is serve as a shroud, a veil over the truth that you are overworking yourself and you're overworking yourself because you are trying to figure out how to close holes in your life that you haven't quite been built yourself up to admit out there. I'm talking about myself. This is what I'm going through and this is what it feels like. As long as I can put it in service, I don't get to deal with the truth and that's real.
Kai: Can I ask you, what holes are you thinking about?
Jason: I think that if I were being honest, I think that I would have to admit that it is, I feel incredibly grateful to have made it this far, to have written the things I've written and made the life for myself that I've made. I would be lying if I said that every day isn't a day, I think about what happens if it all goes away. That's a real thing because the life itself feels like a miracle. To assume or believe that it will be something substantial enough to last for the rest of my life is hard to wrap one's head around.
I think if I can just stay in service, I feel like number one, I'm working, and therefore, keeping the real nuts and bolts of my life moving and working. Number two, if karma's a real thing, then clearly, I'm setting myself up. Does it still work the same if I know what I'm doing? That almost feels too self-aware and therefore self-aggrandizing, and self-indulgent, I don't know if commerce still works, but these are the things that I'm all own.
Kai: Why would these such important ideas for you to get to in a podcast? Self-care has become a political idea in my lifetime, particularly in racial justice spaces. Honestly, certainly, I do, I struggle to balance the need to be some use to people in addressing the mini problems that humankind has and the desire to simply go away and be left alone, frankly.
I suspect there are so many people that feel that way, and so we've got this language around self-care now, but why was that of you could have made a podcast about anything, this was a big part of your conversation in episode 1 at least? Why was this important to you?
Jason: I think one, because it's a part of my life that I grapple with every single day. I wanted to be honest about what it is that I was trying to make in this podcast. I think it would've been disingenuous to keep it out. I think number two, it's just because this is what I'm dealing with and I want people to know that. I think bearing witness to the lives of other people confirm that your life is just a life. If there is nothing extraordinary about it that is making you for you to feel any shame around, like you don't have to ever feel singular.
I think if we talk about these things, including from people who oftentimes in our society get lifted up because of the things that they've made or whatever people feel like they've contributed. I think this is the true contribution to be able to go in front of all those people who have paid into your life, who believe in what you make and tell them the truth about who you are. I don't owe it to anybody, but I think that it could be just as liberating as one of these stories.
Kai: To say yes, it's hard. I struggle.
Jason: It's hard.
Kai: I'm talking with author, Jason Reynolds, author of more than a dozen wildly popular books for young readers. He's got a new podcast from Radiotopia called My Mother Made Me. What he talks about his relationship with his mom and his own journey on this planet as a human being. We'll take a break and come back to pick Jason's mind about the power and the necessity of stories for young people as they embark on their own life journeys. If you've got a question for Jason, do chime in. We'll be right back.
Katie: Hello, everyone. I'm Katie, and I'm a summer intern here at The United States of Anxiety. I hope you're enjoying the show so far. Since this speaks discussion is about books and music, I'd like to know what book or song had the greatest impact on you growing up? Did that novel or song feature someone who looked like you or shared a similar background as you? Email us your response to email@example.com. Once more, that's firstname.lastname@example.org. Bonus points if it's a voice recording. Thanks so much for listening and I hope you enjoy the show.
Kai: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright, joined this week by Jason Reynolds, author of more than a dozen wonderful books for young readers. He's got a new podcast now called My Mother Made Me from Radiotopia. It's all about his relationship with his mom and what he learned from her about living. Jason, as I listened to your conversations with your mom, I also thought about what I know of your story and your journey as a writer. I gather you took a while to fall in love with the written word.
I've heard somewhere else you say that didn't read a full novel until you were in college. Why is that? What was your disinterest?
Jason: I just think none of the books that I was asked to read in school tell it anything like my mother and I. It sounded nothing what I was looking for was, I was looking for the details of my life. The universal truths were there for sure in the books that were being suggested for me or put on curriculums. I was looking for whatever that sound is in my mother's voice, whatever that smell is coming from those pots. I want that, I want my family and my friends, the neighborhood. The ice cream truck, the things that I was used to, the details of my life.
I think that because I never saw them I felt dismissed as if my story or those, the reality of my life wasn't good enough to be written about. It took a while for me.
Kai: What caught you? What made you be like, "Wow, this is"?
Jason: Two things, rap music was a game changer for me. Rap music was something that, and something still that I value very much, despite its complexities and its ever-evolving state. I'm a person who firmly believes that music has saved a lot of lives. To see people use vocabulary in that way, to take advantage of the vocabulary, to really understand how to bend language, it felt like magic as a 10-year-old. Then, the other thing is I read Black Boy by Richard Wright when I was 17, almost 18 years old.
There was something there for me that catalyzed me. There was something there for me that broke me open. I don't know always know what it is, but it changed everything.
Kai: How did this inform you as a writer? Particularly, as a writer for a young people, that particular journey, the fact that it took you a minute to find it. How has that shaped what you then set out to write?
Jason: I think I enter into the space of writing specifically for kids with a different empathy because I understand what it is to not want to read. I was not a bookworm and so many people in this industry, obviously, they grew up reading and writing. That's how it usually happens. You ask my colleagues, how long they've been writing. They're like, "Oh, yes, for years. This is what I've been doing since I was a child. I've been reading since I was a kid." They got pictures of themselves on the bed under the cot. You know what I mean?
That wasn't my reality and so because that's not my story, I think I enter into this space with those kids on my mind, I understand. I don't want to make you feel bad because you don't want to read. I actually understand why you don't want to read, and because I understand that, I can approach my books coming through the back door. I'm fully aware of what you looking for because you looking for exactly what I was looking for. All I got to do is just buck the system and get it on the page. I know that this might have a better chance of roping you in and I've been fortunate to see it all to see it work, man, for the most part.
Kai: I also wonder about what you were talking about before the break of your being haunted by this notion that, "Oh, I've had this success, but it could all go away." How does that show up in your work? Does that inform you in any way?
Jason: It only informs my productivity.
Kai: Oh, wow.
Jason: It only informs my obsession with working. It's like the old Mike Tyson. If you listen to Mike Tyson interviews, he'll always tell you that what you were witnessing when we were all watching him knock people out in 30 seconds was a 19-year-old scared to death. The fear was driving the genius in a strange way. I think that's closer to my story, man. I'm trying, man, I'm in therapy hardcore. We working through it, I'm getting there. It won't be this way forever, I'm sorting it out, but I don't want to lie to you and tell you that the reason I work so hard and I've worked this hard for so long. It's because I value my opportunity so much so that I would do everything to protect it.
Kai: Jason, we opened our mailbox for questions before the show and we got one from Cassandra in Belleville, Illinois. That's Super Girl in the unofficial Goodreads community on Discord, by the way, shout out to that group listening. Super Girl wanted to know just basically why you chose to write for young readers in the first place?
Jason: It happened to me. I didn't know what I was choosing when I got into the game. People don't know this, but I got silent. I was 21. I've been around a long time. I'm almost 40, it's almost 20 years. People are like, "Man, this kid just came out of nowhere." It's like, "No, I've been around for almost two decades," and I remember when I got signed, the book that I had written co-written with my buddy, Jason Griffin, because we were 20 in our early 20s and teens when we wrote it, the voice sounded very young.
They were like, "This is a great book. We love it. We're going to publish it in the young adult sector." We were like, "We don't even know what that is." I never heard of young adult. I didn't start reading until I was a whole adult. It had never dawned me that there was such thing as young adult literature, no clue. The book comes out on young adult and I fall in love with the experience of realizing that you're speaking to the young people of the world because who else is there really to speak to?
Who else is there really the right for be thinking about in this moment? Honestly, other than our elders, I don't know anyone. I don't know what other population is more necessary to consider as young people are. It shows me and I stage.
Kai: It shows you, but to dig in on that a little bit, why are stories, like the idea of story? Why is that so important for young people you think? You've obviously, as you said, it shows you, you've dedicated your whole life to it at this point, but what do you think stories and narrative do for us as we try to find our way in this world? Why is that an important tool?
Jason: First of all, they're the most valuable things that we all own. No matter what else you own is possession; shirt, clothes, shoes, car, house, it doesn't matter. Nothing is more valuable than your story. The reason why is because your story is the thing that-- This is how we connect to one another as human beings. This is the universal love language, our story. This is the way that we protect ourselves from the potential wall that we could cause against one another. This is the way--
Literally, when you think about story, this is the way that we disarm one another. This is the way that we learn to listen to one another. This is the way we choose to love. It exists in every single part of our lives. Some people say, "Well, I'm not really a reader. I like music." It's the story in that music. I love film--
Kai: Narrative is the best music.
Jason: Yes, that's it. It's the story in that film. Even if the music is only instrumental, it's the story. It's still in the story of those instruments. Narrative is being formed at all times. Our lives are rooted in narrative. Whether we know it or not, that's the beauty of it is that most times, we experience it and don't even know what's happening, but that's how narrative work when it's good. When it's good, you don't even know. You don't always know that you're experiencing someone else's story.
When really, what's happening is in the experience of that story, you have been made whole, you have been made bigger. It's brilliant. This is the life source, the lifeblood. This is it, in the beginning, was the word. Even if you are on that side or if you're a religious person, this is what is, it's always business. Everything we know, we know because of narrative, it's how we see the world, how we walk through it. That's why I think it's important.
Kai: You're the Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, going around saying things like that to them. This puts you in conversation with a lot of young readers. I've heard you talk about the questions they ask you about your stories. What have you learned from that part of your work? What have you learned from being asked questions by them?
Jason: That young people are interested in the normalcy of everyone, including the people that they see as abnormal. Young people want to know stuff like, what are you most afraid of, or what was the saddest moment? What was the darkest moment, and how did you get through it, or what kind of car do you drive, or who's your favorite basketball player? Who's your favorite rapper? The reason why I love those questions is because what they do is they acknowledge the humanity of the person. I'm a person who gets treated all sorts of ways by the public.
Most of which I'm overwhelmed with gratitude and humility, but when you get around kids, even with all of that, they just want to know the human stuff. What's your favorite food? There's something in that, that says, "Here's your opportunity to prove to me that you are me."
Kai: Oh, wow. Say more about that.
Jason: I think that young people, they offer us space. This is to all the adults listening. They have this way of offering a space to condescend. Now, when I say condescend, I'm not speaking about the negative connotation. I'm speaking about the historic connotation of condescend, which is when the king "would come down from the castle", come down from the mountain and be amongst everybody and take off the regalia, take off the crown, the robe, and the jewels allow them to call him by his first name and be amongst the people so that they were clear that he was just them, that he was no different.
I think young people have a way of offering us an opportunity to do that, to condescend, to come down and remind them, not only were you once 12 or were you once 14, but that some of that 14, that still exists in you and you're grateful for it. That's what it is for me. Who's your favorite rapper? What's your favorite food? What car you drive? Are you on TikTok and can I follow you? Do you play Fortnite? Do you got to PlayStation 5? I think these are my favorite questions.
I'd rather them ask me this than ask me when you wrote so and so, what was the subplot of the story because when they're 30 years old and you're 40 years old, they'll say, "Yo, I remember when I was 14, I got to ask Jason Reynolds what his favorite video game was." They remember that more than everything else.
Kai: We have a seventh-grade teacher calling, Michael in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Michael, welcome to the show. You have a question for Jason.
Michael: Yes, I do. Thank you so much for taking my call. Mr. Reynolds, I just want to say that I'm a seventh-grade teacher in an urban district here in Connecticut. In my actual classroom library, I have Ghost and All American Boys in my library where I picked up those books over the years. I'm just so excited that my students have gotten to read this work that really pertains to their lives.
I'm curious as an adult, how you continue to hear the voices of an adolescence or a younger audience with all the changes that's going through in our society and their own personal lives? What are you accessing to like really bring that authenticity still to an adolescent audience?
Kai: Thanks for that, Michael.
Jason: This is a good question, Michael. Honestly, it gets harder and harder with each passing year. I'm fortunate because I keep young people around me. I'm one of those people who-- Right now, this very moment downstairs, my little cousins are down there laughing and joking. They're all just barely out of high school. I listen to them and I stick around them and I do whatever I can. I listen to their music. I play their games. I'm on their social medias. Do I have a TikTok? Yes, I have to have one.
Do I like it? Not necessarily, but I have to have it. Do I listen to their music? All of it do. I like it, some of it.
Kai: [laughs] It seems like you really enjoy childhood, like that part of the point.
Jason: It's the best part of life. For me, I think I'm always trying to access it because I appreciated it when it was happening and I appreciated it now, still. Even the childlike parts of myself.
Kai: I need to ask you to reflect on something basic about your work that's related to this. Your stories are about Black childhood specifically. Was that a conscious choice you made or is that just your experience? That's what you wrote about?
Jason: No, that's conscious. Very much, though. I'm one of those people, man, who, gosh, you know when you talk to if you ever speak to like an Italian person, man and you get them talking about in New York City around is a big festival, I think it's the San Gennaro Festival. You talk to the Italian folks down there in the middle of that festival and the pride that they feel. That's how I feel and I don't make no bones about it. I don't try to ever shy away from it or shrink it. It's like, "No, I'm so proud to be a Black person," specifically in this particular context of Black American. The reason why is because I am the proof of survival. I am the proof of survival and not just survival, but a thriving and a joy. I think that it's just one of the most special things to me, it's the special thing. Yes, I choose to write this because I think so many of our young, they don't know just yet how they are living proof of what can come from catastrophe.
Kai: I wonder how much that thought and that emotion also connects to your fear of basically a failure that it can all go away. If one hand, you're proof of our survival, that you could also be proof of our death.
Jason: Absolutely. I think about that often. That's the burden that so many of us carry. It's never just for you. It's for you, your daddy, your mama, your household, your block, your neighborhood, your borough, your host state, all the Black people. [chuckles] I think that's one of those weird things that is unfair to us, by the way. We should not have to carry that kind of burden. One day, hopefully, I'll be able to put mine down, but that day hasn't come. I think about what it is to let myself down, but I think about all the people who are counting on me, man.
I think about that. That's a big deal for me. That matters to me. My mother, my father, my siblings, my neighborhood, all these kids that I'm doing my best to serve, I think about all of it. I understand the weight and the magnitude of what it is I'm trying to do. I'm fully aware.
Kai: We got about a minute left, but I do want to ask you quickly just about the political moment we live in, which books like yours books, where we have a new political debate about what kids are being taught and what kids can read and can't read. I sometimes wonder whether or not, it's overwrought or whether or not it is as dire as it seems the threat. I just wonder quickly where you stand on that.
Jason: Oh, I think that any small notion of censorship is a threat. I'm on the side of threat. I think it's threatening. Do I think that they're blowing out a proportion what they think the contents of these books are? Absolutely. [chuckles] Do I think that we should all be a lot alarmed at the fact that books are being censored in this country as easily as it's happening these days? Yes, this is a very, very scary time. It's a dangerous thing. That's where I am with it. I'm frustrated and upset as everybody else.
Kai: Well, I hope you keep writing. Jason Reynolds is author of more than a dozen incredibly popular books for young adults, for young readers. He's the Library of Congress' National Ambassador for Young People's Literature and he's got a new podcast, all about his relationship with his mom. It's called Radiotopia Presents: My Mother Made Me. The first episode is available right now. Jason, thanks for all of this. Thanks for your work and-
Jason: Thank you.
Kai: -thanks for this conversation.
Jason: My pleasure, so talk soon.
Announcer: United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band, sound designed by Jared Paul. Matthew Miranda was at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillmann, Kousha Navidar, Rahima Nasa, and Kathy Steele. I am, of course, Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on both Instagram and Twitter @Kai_Wright, that's K-A-I_Wright, like the Brothers.
You can find us live every Sunday evening 6:00 PM Eastern, stream it at wnyc.org, tell your smart speaker to play WNYC or now go to WNYC's YouTube channel and watch us there. Thanks for listening and take care of yourselves. I'll see you soon.
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