On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Award-winning YA Author Jason Reynolds wants kids and teens to have the language they need for constructive conversations about race.
In his new book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, Reynolds remixes Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning into an accessible primer on antiblack racism in America that he calls “not a history book.”
Reynolds was recently named the seventh National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress.
In his two-year appointment, Reynolds plans to travel the country and interview children about their lives and hometowns to create what he describes as “proof of life on record.”
Produced by Victoria Chamberlin
- Jason Reynolds Author, "Ghost;" Co-author "All American Boys"
KOJO NNAMDIIn his new book, "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You," Jason Reynolds remixes Ibram X. Kendi's "Stamped From the Beginning" into an accessible primer on racism in America. He begins, "This is not a history book." Reynolds wants young readers to have the language necessary for constructive conversations about race.
KOJO NNAMDIRecently named the seventh National Ambassador for Young People's Literature by the Library of Congress, the award-winning young adult author will travel the country and interview children about their lives and hometowns to create what he describes as proof of life on record. Jason Reynolds joins us in studio. Good to see you again.
JASON REYNOLDSIt's good to see you, too, man.
NNAMDILet's start with the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature that you were named by the Library of Congress. What is this appointment all about, and what do you plan to do with it?
REYNOLDSI mean, this appointment is sort of a part of the laureate system, except my particular position is all about serving as a proliferator and catalyzer of young people's literature. My job, technically, is to serve as a beacon and to be the person who is encouraging young people to read and write, and helping them sort of figure out ways in which to make that happen.
REYNOLDSMy particular platform is a little different than usual. Usually, the ambassador travels around and gives lectures and things of that nature, like a poet laureate does. But I wanted to do something a little different. When we're working with children, I think it's counterintuitive to tell a child to do something and expect them to do it, to tell a child to read, and then they say, okay, I'm going to read. (laugh)
REYNOLDSAnd so, what I've decided to do is to go into these communities, rural, small-town communities, have them interview me first, because I think intimacy is built through trust. And I have to sort of get to know them. I'm willing to spill my own beans, and then we'll interview them, and we'll use StoryCorps to get those stories on record. And it's in the empowerment -- the empowering part of it is in the telling of their own stories, right. If I can tell my story and they can tell their stories, then it's a little easier to get young people to want to put their eyes on the stories of others.
NNAMDII only have one question. Why are you not taking me? I make a living interviewing people. I love interviewing kids. Why did you choose to focus on stories from small towns? Why do you think it's important to elevate young voices in rural parts of the country?
REYNOLDSYou know, I live here in Washington, D.C. And before this, I lived in Brooklyn, New York. And I love city kids and city environments, but the truth is, the poorest kid in Brooklyn can walk to the corner store with a dollar and get chips and a soda, can walk to the library, can walk to the YMCA, can take the bus and the train anywhere in the city for free. But the poorest kid in Bone Gap, Illinois can't do that.
REYNOLDSAnd so what I really want to do is say, you know, I can't pretend -- I always say this, I can't say that I love children if I don't love all of them. If I don't show myself and show up to give that love to all of them. And I think I've done a good job at tackling the cities, but I think it's time to hit some more small areas.
NNAMDIYou've often talked about being a reluctant reader yourself, as a young person, and your journey from not having read a book from cover-to-cover until you were 17 to becoming an award-winning author. What finally made you into a reader? And if there's a reluctant reader listening to you right now, what do you want that person to know about the role that reading and fiction can play in their life?
REYNOLDSI think what did it for me was "Black Boy," by Richard Wright. I had a professor who gave it to me, and, you know, it sort of was a hustle. It's kind of, like, hey man, read the first five pages. If you don't like it, close the book, you know. And on the second page of that book, young Richard sort of sets the curtains on fire and burns his mother's house down. That's it.
REYNOLDSThat's all I needed, right. And I realized in that moment that it's not that I hated to read. It's that I hated to be bored. I think boredom is sometimes the -- either it can be the thing that sort of proliferates creativity, or it could very well be the thing that kills it. And so, for me, in that moment, I realized I actually love to read. I just don't like being bored.
REYNOLDSAnd children are no different and some books are -- look, I think it's disingenuous to pretend that all of us, including adults, want to read 100 pages of exposition. The truth is that we don't. (laugh) And so to expect our kids to want to read that, I think, is a little bit naïve. Now, in terms of -- what was the second part of your question?
NNAMDIWhat would you tell that young person who's not...
REYNOLDSAbout reading. I think the one thing that I would tell them is, it's not about grades. The issue is that we equate reading to grades. Really, what it's about is sort of mental muscle. This is the only weight you have to lift, to strengthen the mind. And the moment that you strengthen the mind, you can navigate the world in a different way. You can process life in a different way. You can use your language, your vocabulary to snuff out issues instead of having to use your fists.
REYNOLDSThese are the things that you can do through story. And there's another thing that happens. There's a soft power that you learn, as well, that we don't ever talk about. In order for you to really read a story and to be in a story, what you're really learning is patience and discipline and diligence, attention to detail, how to listen to yourself, right, as you process this information. And all of these things are necessary for you to navigate your life and relationships and jobs and family dynamics and school dynamics and every other part of your life.
NNAMDITalking with Jason Reynolds. He's an award-winning author. His latest book is "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You." He was also recently named the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature by the Library of Congress. Glad you mentioned bored. You set out to write books that are, quoting here, "not boring." (laugh) That also includes themes that young people actually find relatable. What is it that made you decide to write books for young readers in the first place?
REYNOLDSI mean, I don't know who else there is to write for. I mean, honestly, I think, to me, it's like asking people why they would teach children. It's like, well, who else is there to teach, right? Like, this is an obligation. I think, for me, this feels more like a vocation, responsibility. Who else is there to truly write for? If I have an opportunity to raise up a generation, why wouldn't I do that?
REYNOLDSIt doesn't make sense -- like I say, in "Stamped," it doesn't make sense to try to chop a tree down from the top of it. Right? I'd rather start from the root and figure out how to get young people to read now, so that by the time they're 30, the temperature of the country's a little different.
NNAMDIYoung people's literature has not always had the respect that it deserves. Do you feel that that's changing?
REYNOLDSSlowly, it's changing. I mean, look, the other thing I always tell my buddies who write in the adult sector, without us, y'all don't have any readers. Right? My job is to create your readership, right? And, furthermore, I challenge adults who sort of look at children's literature as less than literature. I challenge them to think about the fact that perhaps, implicitly, subconsciously, what they're actually saying is not that children's literature is less than, but that children are. That they believe that children are less-than, and therefore the things that are made for children are less-than. And I would challenge them to do a little self work and figure out how they really feel about our youth.
NNAMDIWhat do you think has prompted this shift that is causing young people's literature to now get more respect?
REYNOLDSYou know, I think it's a few things. I think it's complicated. One, I think the sort of cross-pollination of media and most of the movies that everybody sees are sort of taken from our books. But also I think there are a few of us that are very vocal and that have gotten a bit more respect. Like, because I can sort of move around in all the literary spaces, I take every opportunity I have to make sure that I challenge my partners who work in those spaces, constantly sort of using my sort of platform to megaphone that, yes, I write for children. Not because I have to, but because I choose to.
REYNOLDSAnd that all of your favorite books you read when you were in the seventh grade. Your entire life, what you draw back to is, you know, "A Wrinkle in Time," which is a book you read when you were young. "To Kill a Mockingbird." They read it in the eighth grade. Right? So, what you say is less than sophisticated are the very books that made you who you are, that fortified you when you were young. It's just a matter of perspective, you know.
NNAMDIAnd I think one of the reasons is when grownups start actually reading the books that are written for young people. I got "Ghost" for my granddaughter, and when she came over to get it, I said, I'm sorry, you can't have it. I haven't finished yet." (laugh) Okay. I had to finish the entire book before I passed it on to her. How has growing up in the Washington area shaped your perspective on the world and your writing?
REYNOLDSOh, man, so much. I think I didn't know it until I left and moved to New York, but so much. I think number one, it's an incredible place. Back then, especially in the '80s and early '90s, mid-'90s, because D.C. was still, quote-unquote, "Chocolate City." And it felt like "Chocolate City." My mom grew up here in the '50s and '60s, and all of her sisters, all my cousins grew up in Northeast. And so it was one of those things where we -- I got to be in a space that felt black in the most incredible way. And it felt sort of buttressed by culture in a way that I still hold onto and move around the world with. Right?
REYNOLDSThe other thing is, I came up when U Street, in the '90s and early 2000s, when all the artists in D.C. would all hang out on U Street, and the way they did in the 1930s, right, and the 1960s, right. This sort of tradition of art being on that corridor, that 14th and U corridor. And I was no different. I was a 15 and 16-year-old kid there with all the writers and the singers and the rappers and the dancers. And so, by the time I moved to New York, I had no fear. No one was intimidating to me, because I felt like I had been around the best artists that this country had to offer. And so this big beast of a city, to me, was nothing. It was bite-size as far, as I was concerned, because D.C. made me feel that way.
NNAMDIBut the difference between you and all of the other artists and writers and performers you were meeting on U Street is that you knew how to crochet.
REYNOLDS(laugh) I did know how to crochet.
NNAMDIHow did that happen?
REYNOLDSI was an interesting kid full of curiosity. I had a penchant for hats. I couldn't find the ones I really wanted. This was back when we were wearing X hats that were tied up at the top, you know. And I couldn't find the ones I wanted. And my mom had a friend who taught me how to make them myself. And even that, right, taught me discipline, the same things, right, discipline, patience, attention to detail. If you drop a stitch, if you drop one stitch, then your entire hat is out of whack. You got to go back and rework it. That's what a story is.
NNAMDIYour latest book, "Stamped," is a remix on Ibram X Kendi's work "Stamped From the Beginning," which examines the history of racist ideas in America. How did the idea to adapt that work for a young audience begin with you?
REYNOLDSHe called me, asked me to do it, and I told him no. (laugh) I met Dr. Kendi at -- actually, we were both nominated for the national book award. So, "Ghost" was nominated that year and "Stamped From the Beginning" was nominated. And I met him there, at the dinner. And shortly after he won, he moved to D.C., took a job at American University, calls me on the phone and says, look I'm here. I don't have no friends. You want to hang out? (laugh)
NNAMDIYou know, that's the way I imagined it...
REYNOLDSThat's how it happened.
NNAMDI...Ibram comes to live here, you live here. He probably says, who can I talk to here?
REYNOLDSThat's it. I don't have any friends. Can we hang out? And so we go hang out, and he sort of said, I want you to write this adaptation as remix of his book. I say no. He asks again, a little later. I say no. But he continued to ask and eventually just kind of broke me down when I realized that perhaps I could do something, and we could do something that was bigger than the both of us. It became just really -- it became apparent how important this could be, if we could get it right.
NNAMDII should mention that Ibram X Kendi is here at American University. And American University carries the license for WAMU. Do you think this book will help young people develop language to more adequately talk about race?
REYNOLDSYeah, I do. I think -- I look at sort of what is happening with my books over the years and sort of the shifting in curriculums and the shifting of a reading culture, amongst young boys, specifically, but also just amongst black kids and brown kids and all sorts of kids in the country and parts of the world. And I think this time around if I could use those elements and put them into a piece of nonfiction and create conversational tone to deal with a really difficult topic, I think that we could really make some headway, perhaps.
REYNOLDSAnd I also think, look, if language is the cornerstone of the culture, right, and if we could figure out how to change the language around the culture or race, then that means the culture of race itself might change, right, if we could change the language around it. And I think giving kids the lexicon will empower them to actually be the ones to push it forward.
NNAMDIThe writer and illustrator Jerry Craft won this year's John Newberry Medal for "New Kid," the first graphic novel to receive the prize for the most outstanding contribution to children's literature. Can works like "New Kid" and your own writing shift this conversation about diversity and inclusion in publishing?
REYNOLDSIt can. It can. I mean, all young people are looking for -- well, look, I think this is simple, right, because publishers struggle with the idea that books by and about people of color or people who come from diverse backgrounds aren't marketable. But there's never been a time in our history where that has rung true, right. Black art has sold for as long as black art has existed around the world. It has been the tuning fork for art forever and ever, even if it doesn't get the credit for it. Right?
REYNOLDSNow, we know that, but the publishing industry, age-old, you know, wealthy, white, at the top, sort of don't quite get what's happening on the ground. And so what we're seeing is with the more diversity that's sort of coming in, the broadening of the readership. Right? It's proving itself to be true.
REYNOLDSRap music is the biggest music on the face of the planet. Now, you mean to tell me that the work that I make doesn't have a market? (laugh) It just doesn't make sense. So, absolutely, shout-out to Jerry. I'm super-proud of him and happy for him for winning the Newberry.
NNAMDILet's talk a little bit more about the publishing industry, because for people who are not familiar with that world and what it takes to get a book published, talk a little bit more about the role of the gatekeepers. Can this move toward diversity happen without more diverse representation among the gatekeepers themselves?
REYNOLDSSo, this is the real conversation, right. Like, diversity, from the level of the writer, is a very small part of it, and that in order for true diversity, for true change, for true inclusion to happen, that inclusion has to first show itself in the corporate entity that is publishing. So, we need diverse agents, right. Because if your agent doesn't connect to the thing that you make, then he or she can't sell it.
REYNOLDSWe need diverse publicists, because if your publicist can't connect to the thing that you made, then he or she doesn't know where to put it. Do you know how long it took me to get black press? I just got a write up in Essence magazine last month, first time in all these years, 13 books later, right. Like, this is a very real thing, in terms of print magazines.
REYNOLDSWe need diversity in the designers, the design team, so that we don't have to keep fighting for our book covers and the way that they're representing our stories. We need diversity, most importantly, in the C-suite, in the sales department, the people are doling out the money, because they're the ones who make it all go. And if they don't believe or know where the market is or see the value in a story coming from a diverse community, then that story does not get made.
REYNOLDSSo, if we can figure out how to restructure and rejigger the entire corporate structure -- which is difficult and will take some time -- then I think that we can really sort of turn that corner. But the catch-22 is there's no money in publishing, and it takes place in the most expensive city in America. So, what we've really got to figure out is, how do we create sort of subsidies or grants or something so that we can get diverse voices in publishing and subsidize their lives until they can get on their feet, while also being editors and publicists and marketers and sales people and all of that. Because it's tough for you to make it, just coming straight up there, and trying to get...
NNAMDI(overlapping) How important was it for you to be able to ultimately navigate that journey, that journey that starts with you simply writing a story and then trying to get that story published?
REYNOLDSIt felt almost impossible. I mean, this is back in -- I came into this industry 15 years ago, when the internet wasn't what it is now, when everybody didn't have a website, when the information wasn't as accessible. I had no idea what I was doing. And I was in New York with one of my best friends, and we're trying to figure out how to make it go. And all we knew was the way rappers made it go, the way musicians made it happen. You run around and you drop off your demo tape.
REYNOLDSAnd so we ran around New York City dropping off the book that we made. And publishers and agents and magazines were all shutting us down. And it wasn't until a friend of mine gave it to his agent and that agent gave it to her friend, and I got a phone call the next morning. And it was a very simple phone call that said, I don't know what this is or if I can do anything with it, but anybody willing to invest this much in themselves, I at least need to take a meeting with. I took a meeting with her, and that's how I got in this game.
NNAMDIAnd he has gone so far in the game that Jason Reynolds has been named the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature by the Library of Congress. Congratulations, and good luck in that endeavor.
NNAMDIHis latest book is called "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You." It will be released on March 10th. Jason Reynolds, thank you so much for joining us.
REYNOLDSGood to see you.
NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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