Two weeks ago I saw Jason Reynolds speak at a local high school. His talk was free to the public, who only had to submit their names for tickets as a means of making sure the auditorium didn’t reach capacity. A former coworker of mine put her name in for a few tickets, but was added to the wait list. She forgot all about the talk until she was notified at the last minute that she got off the wait list and tickets were available to her. She had an extra ticket so, knowing that I am a lover of all things book, she asked if I would like to go to the talk. When she asked, I had never even heard of Jason Reynolds. After some brief online research, I decided that he seemed interesting so I was all for it!
I found the general bits online: Jason Reynolds is an American author for young adult audiences (which kind of explained why I hadn’t heard of him yet). He writes novels and poetry and had some pretty hefty awards and accomplishments under his belt including receiving an NAACP Image Award, a Newbery Honor, and being a National Book Award finalist. He’s originally from the Washington D.C. area as well which is just an added fun fact since I live around there too.
I knew I was hooked when…
…he started his talk casual and comedic. He was so relaxed, weaving words that struck a balance between all the kids and adults in the room. We could all comprehend, relate, and laugh with him when he was talking. This is such a fine line that usually only the magic-makers of Disney, Pixar, and Spongebob can walk it (and even then not always on a consistent basis).
[Side note: I’m aware that it probably sounds like a downgrade to compare his speaking style and the all-inclusive way he weaves his word-magic to Spongebob Squarepants, but given that I’m comparing him to literally one of my favorite cartoons since its birth in 1999, I mean the comparison as a huge compliment! Obviously it is arguable that Jason Reynolds is slightly more important than Spongebob and I’ll give him that, but the edge he has on Spongebob is slight. SLIGHT! #sarcasm]
…he cited Queen Latifah as a major influence in his life. Listening to and reading her lyrics inspired him to start writing his own ‘Queen Latifah poems’. I don’t want to share too much on this talking point, I’d rather encourage people to hear him speak if they can, but when he thanked Queen Latifah I almost laughed out loud because I was so surprised.
When I was old enough to start buying my own music, one of the first CDs I purchased was Queen Latifah’s Order in the Court and I still have it! She’s been on TV since I was a little kid and always seems like such an interesting, strong woman who has this awesome presence that makes me check in to see what she’s working on next! Her energy is contagious to the point where if I look at a picture of Queen Latifah smiling, then suddenly I’m smiling too! I love Queen Latifah and thought ‘Well if Jason Reynolds knows how cool Queen Latifah is then he’s probably good people’.
Jason frequently mentions that Queen Latifah’s words were important to him because other literature didn’t speak to his experience of urban life growing up as a black child. He even swore off books until later in life when he finally read his first book, Black Boy by Richard Wright, cover to cover at 17 years old! I can never fully comprehend what that feels like, but I listened to what Jason said and heard his experience. For me, Queen Latifah is an amazing role-model for women and girls so I felt a flutter of excitement at having this indirect connection with Jason even if it was for different reasons!
[Another side note: Queen Latifah, if you ever read this I just want you to know that I also played Ursula in the Little Mermaid. I was 13 and the show was in the basement auditorium of my grade school, but I’m proud that you and I have this in common since you have also played Ursula on the stage! I think you would agree that you have to have a special personality to yell ‘…and don’t underestimate the importance of body language’ while maintaining character (especially at 13) so by that logic we’d probably be great friends!]
…he was serious but approachable and took such care with questions from children. By the end of his talk, the tone was quite serious. Jason’s books are based on a lot of personal experiences that are tough to live through for anyone, but especially tough for kids. Many children have to deal with poverty, violence, and death on a regular basis, but having a person like Jason stand up and say I’ve seen these things as well makes all the difference. His writing provides an outlet to so many kids who need someone to understand what they’re going through and what they’ve seen.
When Jason took questions from the audience he added a disclaimer for the adults in the room: Anyone should be allowed to ask anything. He didn’t want adults to keep their children from asking the tough questions that he would answer honestly. I listened to him give thoughtful answers to all types of questions ranging from sports and writing to bullying and depression. I think all kids want is for people to listen and take them seriously. Jason does that for everyone.
After the talk…
…I immediately checked out 7 of Jason’s books from the library.
…I absorbed Ghost in 2 days and cried while reading it. (Book 1 in the Track Series)
…I finished Long Way Down in 1 day and am still thinking about it.
…I will read the rest of the Track Series (Patina, Sunny, Lu)
…I will read Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks and Stamped
…I will read Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
… I will read Black Boy by Richard Wright (The first book Jason read cover to cover).
…I will read everything Jason Reynolds has written and the books that inspire him.
…I will continue to recommend his books to everyone.
We can all empathize with his characters. We can all relate to at least one experience he shares in his work. We can all read these books and feel something. We can all read these books and learn something.