jason reynolds the national ambassador at the library of congress
By: Zoe Rastegar
And this is how Jason Reynolds has captured the attention of millions of young adults saying, His plan is not to write boring books.
Reynolds’ genuine ability to discuss the realities of life, especially for young Black men, and his passion for poetry have become the catalysts for this literary star.
Reynolds is a published American author with an authentic voice and a cool style. He started a service to the generation of teens who are unwilling to exchange their screens for books. Reynolds has been able to penetrate such resistance by telling stories that are relevant and relatable to teens’ real life experiences— empowering them to find themselves and their potential in spite of all odds.
Reynolds’ books feature a unique communication style that grabs the reader’s attention and gains their trust by stating the truth about life, as it really is. And the young generation is receiving his unimposing messages, absorbing every word on every page and finding themselves in the stories. Reynolds grew up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, within aloving family. However, in a neighborhood where he witnessed violence, drugs and hopelessness.
“When you feel that kind of pain, time suspends itself, and you believe that you’ll be 19 forever, you believe that the way you feel in this moment will last forever,” Reynolds said. He admits that he did not read a single book until the age of 17 because they were not about him, his neighborhood or what was happening around him. “It’s not something I’m proud of. It’s not cool,” Reynolds continued.
“The truth is, my life was made infinitely more difficult because I didn’t read any books. But I didn’t read any books. That’s my story. That’s my truth.”
As a communicator, his truth is his story, and his stories are the truth. He is telling his stories with the naked reality of life that are perceptible and palpable to these young people. Reynolds’ first real heartfelt encounter with literature happened when he bought a five-dollar cassette of Queen Latifah, where he found himself immersed in her words. A light flashed in his mind that, “This is also literature in the form of poetry, but it sounds like me,” he said. He left Washington D.C. for New York City with the dream of becoming a writer. His love of words and his inspirations from rap music were the impetus for his first writing. He eventually published, My Name Is Jason. Mine Too: Our Story. Our Way. But it was not a great success, and he knew that his bigger dream as a writer had yet to come true. He came back to D.C. and worked for his father who was the director of a mental health clinic where he learned the complexities of the human mind and its interactions.
He says; “I learned just how interesting stories can be, how complex humanity really is, how necessary it is sometimes to humanize those who have been vilified”.
Later, he returned to NYC to earn a living and pursue a career as a writer. But he had to earn a living. He was hired by the Rag & Bones retail store and worked as a manager while he spent all his free time writing poetry and applying to graduate schools for his master’s degree in literature. While he continued receiving rejection letters, an old friend and writer, Christopher Myers, encouraged him to write in his own voice and tell real stories about real people in his neighborhood. Myers also advised him to write about kids who need to be heard, to be seen and to be valued. He took the advice, and the outcome was his 2014 book, When I was the Greatest. This book was the birth of Reynolds’ literary life. It was a boost to his confidence to claim his place on the literary stage as a published writer with a clear purpose and plan. Now at age 38, he is a shining author of novels and poetry for the current generation of young adults and one of the most prolific writers of his time with 13 published books in a short few years. His 2019 publication, Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, was the finalist for a National Book Award by several prestigious publications and media outlets including Washington Post and NPR. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, not to mention the Newbery Honor Books in 2020-2021, and he was appointed as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
But Reynolds’ purpose and his real award is far greater than approval, accolades, distinctions and decoration. His own life and observations have transformed him to be a great writer with a question and a quest and a concept. Today he is proud to be of service to the young generation by transmitting his experiences into a simple and current language without boredom and blame.
He is conscious of their hunger to be heard, to be seen and to be valued. Reynolds is serving them with his words while being grateful that these young people are allowing him to be of serve to them.
He hopes his readers find themselves through his words, which he so masterfully lands within their soul. His stories are familiar, honest and open as a familiar rap song speaking of their youth, innocence, energy, their power, pain and passion. The youth’s arrogance, anger, their fearless minds and their underlying fears of hindrances and hardships, fences and barriers imposed by the society, their emotional bumps and bruises and their hopes and dreams.
Reynolds defines himself like a professional ball player whose stories are his slam dunks. “I am a writer, I mean in the same way a professional ball player calls himself an athlete, the stories are kinda like my slam dunks, I am dunking my words. In your FACE! Ha!” Reynolds said.
He connects with authenticity and accuracy of their common experiences without any judgement or opinion. He does not teach, yet he educates; he does not preach, yet he speaks of hope and guides them to a more leveled path for a higher purpose. From his own experience, Reynolds realizes that young people’s lack of reading is not their dislike of books, rather it is boredom. They are bored because most books are not about the reality of their generation and the world they live in. Reynolds promises not to bore them. He uses his creativity to bring a balance between the old and the new thoughts in a way that gets the attention of young adults.
The Long Way Down is a great example of a comparative study of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet and juxtaposition of classic literature and the realities of our time exploring the vicious cycle of violence and revenge.
In his book, The Boy in the Black Suit, he talks about the grief of a 17 years old trying to learn how to rise up when life keeps knocking him down. Reynolds’ other best seller, Ghost is about a young boy named Ghost who escaped from domestic violence and kept running till he had a chance to be the best sprinter in his town, only if he could stop running for wrong reasons. The author’s message raises the question, could Ghost put his past behind him for a brighter future or are his entanglements with the past going to put him on the wrong track?
Ghost is a microcosm for millions of young adults who are living in two worlds of outside violence and the loving and caring families trying their best to protect them.
In his two year tenure as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, he likes to visit many towns and cities across America and connect with young adults to have meaningful discussions through his platform, “Grab The Mic: Tell your story,” with the goal to meet them and to listen to their stories.