YA Literature Chose Jason Reynolds
Speaker 1: Hello, everyone. How y'all doing today? Well, I'm doing amazing because I just finished another outstanding book. This book is called Ghost.
Speaker 2: This month, we'll be reading Sunny, by Jason Reynolds.
Speaker 3: Stuntboy, in the Meantime, it's by Jason Reynolds. You probably heard of him before.
Speaker 4: Right now, a lot of people are bringing up the fact that Black lives matter, and it's basically what this book is about.
Speaker 1: I recommend to read this book, and out of my database, I say 10 out of 10, enjoyed reading every page of it.
Speaker 4: It's still very relevant in today, and I think it's very important to read this book.
Speaker 1: I love this book so much, and I think you guys should definitely add this to your reading list. If you go to your local library, be sure to ask for Jason Reynolds.
Speaker 5: Honestly, it's one of the best books I've ever read.
Speaker 6: To a fact?
Speaker 5: To a fact. Yes.
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright, and Merry Christmas. I hope those who celebrate the holiday have had a day full of love and relaxation, or just whatever it is you're seeking today. We're going to celebrate the holiday here by revisiting one of my favorite conversations this year. Those voices you just heard were a sampling of the many young readers who have taken to YouTube to talk about 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. Earlier this year, Jason released a four-part podcast in which we learn about his own story through the prism of his relationship with his mom.
It's called My Mother Made Me, from Radiotopia, and I spoke with him about it this past summer. 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 Wright: 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.
Jason Reynolds: [laughs]
Kai Wright: 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 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?
Jason Reynolds: Yes.
Kai Wright: 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 Reynolds: Oof, oof, oof. 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 Wright: Have you always been such close friends? You describe her as one of your best friends. Has that always been true?
Jason Reynolds: 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, therefore, someone I trust, and therefore, someone I can figure out how to communicate with, can laugh with, and can wrestle with, in terms of ideas and the ways that one might go about life. Our relationship, since very young, opened communicative doors. All of that kind of stuff has been what built this archetype.
Kai Wright: It's so funny to hear you say that too because one of the tropes of Black life as kids is our parents saying, "I'm not your friend, I'm your parent."
Jason Reynolds: Exactly. Exactly.
Kai Wright: You're describing a very different relationship.
Jason Reynolds: I think she was more like, "I am your friend and your parent, and I get to pick and choose which I need to push to the forefront at any given time."
Kai Wright: One thing you say that she taught you was your mantra, which is, "I can do anything."
Jason Reynolds: I can do anything. Yes.
Kai Wright: It's such a powerful idea to teach a young person, especially a Black boy, but 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 Reynolds: [chuckles] 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. What is never taught along the way with such a mantra, and such a 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," but there should have been some commas that came after that. 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, "I can do anything," was my mother's way of-- 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, in this point in my life, should be if you find balance in health, mentally and physically. [laughs]
Kai Wright: Right. 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 Reynolds: Let me ask you this, what do you think makes you feel joy? That's what I'm trying to figure out.
Speaker 9: 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 Reynolds: More needed than wanted. I get that. I really, freely 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 kind of strange endorphin rush, or if service has become a crutch I use to prop up some insecurity I'm unaware of.
Kai Wright: That's Jason Reynolds talking to his mom. That's the end of episode one 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 Reynolds: Of course. When I was a young man, my mom would always say, "Everyone's purpose in life is the same, is 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, 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. 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 built yourself up to admit you are there. I'm talking about myself. This is what I'm going through. This is what it feels like. As long as I can put it in service, I don't got to deal with the truth. That's real.
Kai Wright: Can I ask you, what holes are you thinking about?
Jason Reynolds: I think that if I were being honest, I think that I would have to admit that 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, but 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, so to assume or believe that it will be something substantial enough to last for the rest of my life--
It's 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 right. Number two, if karma's a real thing, then clearly, I'm setting myself up, but does it still work the same if I know what I'm doing? It feels almost too self-aware and therefore, it's self-aggrandizing and self-indulgent. I don't know if karma still works, but these are the things that I'm [unintelligible 00:10:37].
Kai Wright: Why would these be 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 many 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.
We've got this language around self-care now, but 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 Reynolds: 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. Number two, is 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. That there is nothing extraordinary about it, for you to feel any shame around. 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 Wright: To say, "Yes, it's hard. I struggle."
Jason Reynolds: It's hard.
Kai Wright: Well, 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, in which 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. We'll be right back.
Speaker 10: Notes from America is supported by the Innocence Project, working to free innocent people from prison, prevent wrongful convictions, and create fair, compassionate, and equitable systems of justice for everyone. More at innocenceproject.org.
Kai Wright: Hey, gang, this is Kai, and I've got some really cool news. For Martin Luther King Day, we are going to record our show live from the stage of the Apollo Theater here in Harlem. This is part of an annual event that WNYC produces at the Apollo, to honor MLK Day every year. It's back in person this year, and for the first half hour of it, I'm going to be hosting conversations that are inspired by the song Young, Gifted, and Black. That's our text, so to speak and it's going to be a great night.
It's a two-hour program with Notes From America in the first half, and then live music, spoken word, and other cool performance stuff in the second half. The event is Sunday, January 15th. That's MLK day. If you're going to be in the New York area, how about you come through and join us? The tickets are free, but you do have to RSVP to get them, so go to wnyc.org/mlk2023. Get more information, get your tickets. They're going to be available starting January 2nd. I hope I'll see you there.
It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright, and this week, we're revisiting a conversation I had earlier this year with young adult author Jason Reynolds. We talked about his podcast My Mother Made Me, which is all about his relationship with his mom. 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. Right? I've heard somewhere else you say that you didn't read a full novel until you were in college. Why is that? What was your disinterest?
Jason Reynolds: I just think none of the books that I was asked to read in schools sounded anything like my mother and I. 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 the reality of my life, wasn't good enough to be written about, and so it took a while for me.
Kai Wright: What caught you? What made you be like, "Wow, this is good"?
Jason Reynolds: Two things. Rap music was a game-changer for me. Rap music was something, and something still, that I value very much. Despite its complexities and its ever-evolving state. I'm a person who firmly believes that 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, and whatever, there was something there for me. That catalyzed me. There was something there for me that broke me open. I don't always know what it is, but it changed everything.
Kai Wright: How did this inform you as a writer? Particularly as a writer for young people, that particular journey, the fact that it sort of took you a minute to find it, how has that shaped what you then set out to write?
Jason Reynolds: I think I entered into the space of writing specifically for kids with a different kind of empathy because I understand what it is to not want to read. I was not a bookworm. So many people, and 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, like, [unintelligible 00:17:12]. You know what I mean? That wasn't my reality, because that's not my story, I think I entered into this space with those kids or 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. I've been fortunate to see it work, man, for the most part.
Kai Wright: 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 Reynolds: It only informs my productivity. 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. Look, 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. I don't want to lie to you and tell you that the reason I worked 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 Wright: Jason, we opened our mailbox for questions before the show, and we got one from Cassandra in Belleville, Illinois. That's a Supergirl in the unofficial good reads community on Discord, by the way. Shout out to that group listening. Supergirl wanted to know just basically why you chose to write for young readers in the first place.
Jason Reynolds: 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 signed when 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. I remember when I got signed, the book that I had co-written with my buddy Jason Griffin, because we were 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 downed to 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 to write for, we 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 chose me.
Kai Wright: It chose you. To dig in on that a little bit, why are stories, the idea of story, why is that so important for young people, you think? Obviously, as you said, it chose 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 Reynolds: First of all, they're the most valuable things that we all own. No matter what else you own, it's 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 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 war that we could cause against one another.
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, and it exists in every single part of our lives. Some people say I'm not really a reader, I like music. It's the story in that music. I love film--
Kai Wright: Narrative music is the best music, yes.
Jason Reynolds: 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. 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, it's always business. Everything we know, we know because of narrative. It's how we see the world and how we walk through it. That's why I think it's important.
Kai Wright: 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 Reynolds: 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, 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. 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 Wright: Oh, wow. Say more about that.
Jason Reynolds: I think that young people offer us space, and 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, 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 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 kind of car you drive? Are you on TikTok, and can I follow you? Do you play Fortnite? Do you got a 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? When they're 30 years old, and they'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'll remember that more than everything else.
Kai Wright: We have a seventh-grade teacher calling, Michael, in Richfield, 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 Ghosts 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 adolescent, 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 really bring that authenticity, still, to an adolescent audience?
Kai Wright: Thanks for that, Michael.
Jason Reynolds: 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. Right now, this very moment, downstairs, my little cousins are down there laughing and joking, and they're all just barely out of high school. I listen to them, 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 Wright: It seems like you really enjoyed childhood. That's part of the point.
Jason Reynolds: 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 appreciate it now, still, even the childlike parts of myself.
Kai Wright: 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, so that's what you wrote about?
Jason Reynolds: No, that's conscious. Very much so. I'm one of those people man, who-- Gosh, if you ever speak to an Italian person and you get them talking about-- In New York City, it'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. I don't make no bones about it. I don't try to ever shy away from it, or shrink it.
It's like nah, 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, 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 a special thing. I choose to write this because I think so many of our young ones don't know, just yet, how they too are the living proof of what can come from catastrophe.
Kai Wright: I wonder how much that thought and that emotion also connects to your fear of basically a failure, that it could all go away, one hand, your proof of our survival, that you could also be proof of our death.
Jason Reynolds: 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 whole state, all the Black people. I think that's one of those weird things that is unfair to us, by the way. We should not have to carry that 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, 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 Wright: 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 about things 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 Reynolds: 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 of proportion what they think the contents of these books are? Absolutely. Do I think that we should all be a little alarmed, or a lot alarmed, at the fact that books are being censored in this country, as easily as it's happening these days? Yes. 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 Wright: 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's 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. Jason, thanks for all of this. Thanks for your words. Thanks for this conversation.
Jason Reynolds: My pleasure. Talk soon.
Kai Wright: That was my conversation with Jason Reynolds from earlier this year. I'm pleased you're spending this Christmas evening with us, and if you missed our holiday music show a couple of weeks ago, let me recommend that to you for later tonight as well. We asked listeners to help us curate the Notes from America holiday playlist. It was so much fun. You guys really showed up. Many people called in to even sing their recommendation.
I did not, but I really appreciate you doing so. Anyway, you can find that playlist by going to our podcast feed and looking for the link in the show notes of any of our recent episodes, or you can just search for it on Spotify. Notes from America is a production of WNYC studios. You can find us wherever you get your podcast, or at notesfromamerica.org. We're on Instagram, @noteswithKai, that's K-A-I. Mixing and music by Jared Paul.
Our show is edited, produced, and reported by Karen Frillmann, Vanessa Handy, Regina de Heer, Rahima Nasa, and Kousha Navidar. I'm Kai Wright. Thanks for spending time with us tonight, and happy holidays.
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