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JASON REYNOLDS

Jason Reynolds is an American author of novels and poetry for young adult and middle-grade audiences, including Ghost,National Book Award Finalist for Young People's Literature. His other novels include the New York Times best-selling Track series—Ghost (2016), Patina (2017), and Sunny (2018)—and As Brave As You (2016), winner of the 2016 Kirkus Prize, the 2017 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teen, and the 2017 Schneider Family Book Award. He also wrote a Marvel Comics graphic novel called Miles Morales: Spider-Man (2017). His 2017 novel written in free verse, Long Way Down, was named a Newbery Honor book, a Printz Honor Book, and best young adult work by the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Awards.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

So, I'm thrilled today that Jason Reynolds can take time out of his busy schedule to join us today. First of all, congratulations for your recent accolade on the long list of- as a national book award for Look Both Ways. I loved it as- of course- as did so many other people.

 

Jason Reynolds

Thank you, I appreciate that. I appreciate it.

 

Molly Ness

So, my family jokes that I stalk you. We had a chance encounter at an airport in Boston several years ago. I've met you at Nerd Camp. I follow you on social media, so it's a real pleasure to talk to you. Our listeners are going to know you as an award-winning author, but I'm not sure that they know about your community work. I'm really interested in hearing how you're working on spreading book culture and book access to under-resourced populations and I know some of your writing focuses on getting incarcerated juvenile into the conversation so tell us about that work. 

 

Jason Reynolds

Well before I delve into incarcerated youth, I'm also say that another part of the process for me is making sure that we have the necessary books even in schools right. And so what happens sometimes because of lack of resources because the of cutting of libraries because of cutting of funds, when it comes to anything that's not athletics all these sorts of things, I find that teachers who are as we all know underappreciated and furthermore underpaid typically have to take portions of their paychecks to buy books. And I've known all these teachers so many thousands of teachers over the country who have been...spending their pocket money- money that they have to use for their own children or pay their mortgages or feed themselves and had to use that money to purchase books that their kids can read in classes or have had to do all sorts of really creative and...stretched to ensure that their students have decent books. And so, a few times a year I just buy class sets for like- you know tons and tons of people ultimately equals about 100 schools a year. And just get class sets which comes to about- gosh I guess- 3,000 books a year that I just sort of buy it by myself because I'm in a situation where I mean these books and these students and these teachers have afforded me the opportunity when it's a little like that at least I can do is give something back so that they don’t have to continue to gauge their own paychecks to do a job that all of us are responsible for so that's one thing. But as you consistently... they don't talk about ...but that Beacon is important to know because only I think my fellow authors should get on board as well.

 

I think all of us have a bit of a debt to pay.

We're all overpaid and so it's no struggle for our backs to purchase books because especially that we get them 70% off. At least we can do is buy them when we can.

 

Molly Ness

Well let me interrupt you there before you start talking about the other work that you do because I want to remind our listeners that the statistics show that teachers pay somewhere around $600 on average out-of-pocket for classroom resources. So, I'm so thrilled to hear about the work that you're doing as well as calling on other authors and I would also add other publishing companies to do their parts in ending book deserts.

 

Jason Reynolds

Yes, and some incarcerated youth...so I've been going to prisons for a long time- years and years and years before anybody even knew my name. I had been working in juvenile detention centers- it's just a thing that I do. One, because there are children there. Two, because I believe that the American penal system as it pertains to all human beings, let alone young people, I think that it's non-restorative and I think that is actually criminal in and of itself. For those who don't know there are maximum security prisons in America for children. There are children who are 13 years old, 14 years old serving hard-time hard sentences, 10-year sentences- you know kids out in Texas what have gotten 40 years sentences at 15 years old, life sentences. And that disturbs me- disgusts me especially since I've been fortunate enough to see the world and to go to juvenile detention centers all over the world. I've been to prisons in the Caribbean and youth prisons in the Caribbean. I've been to youth prisons in London, youth prisons in Scotland, in Germany, and Italy and all these places. And they're all far more humane and more free even in the midst of captivity. The young people have more autonomy more information available to them- is actually meant to be restorative and rehabilitative and even thinking about rehabilitation, I'm careful about even that language as it pertains to children. I think what it is I- they should be comforting, and I think there should be loving spaces too because usually kids who find themselves in those environments are coming from spaces void of it. Well at least they feel those spaces are void of it. I think it's a feeling of insignificance, feeling of peer pressure and feeling of...the realities of poverty, the realities of miseducation, the realities of lack of resources, food deserts, book deserts, housing issues, insurance, politics, racism, sexism- we can go on and on and on. And that puts people in a situation where they find themselves incarcerated at 14, 15 years old- gangs which is a whole other issue. 14, 15 years old and instead of saying we love you and instead of saying we're here to insulate you and to cover you with protection and love, and safety and comfort and fortitude, we claim to be fixing them. And I think that's a dangerous way to think about it and so with that being said, I've gotten into these spaces and I've been into these spaces and there's some that don't have any books which of course is devastating because these are kids who are imprisoned with nothing else to do. There's class but other than that, other than textbooks, some of them don't even have any books. Some of them have old books- right. They have books but they're all sort of- old and look if I'm 14 and it's 2019 and I'm in jail, there are certain books that I just don't want to read. I didn't want to read those books outside of jail- let alone reading them inside of jail. There's that- sort of that reality where you had the same books our kids are reading in school that were- are trying to evolve and move forward. They’ve got those same books in prison but if you're in jail, To Kill a Mockingbird is a tough read for you- you know what I mean. It doesn't quite do it- let alone you’re not going to be able to- you don't have the same kinds of deconstruction conversations around the book you're reading usually because you got to do something to pass the time- you know. When they’re not in class, books become something like in every other prison…

 

books become a thing to try and edify you or entertain you, but if nothing is entertaining then nothing is edified

 

when you're 15 years old. And then I've been to some prisons where there are decent libraries. Some of the jails in California have had some pretty solid libraries. There was a woman named Amy Chay who I want to make sure to shout out because she worked, and she ran so much of the California Juvenile system libraries and I spent a lot of time with Amy over the years and she's fantastic. She works in the school system so she was working for the juvies and she was making sure, she worked and worked and worked and laid it on the line to ensure that young people have an array of books for them that would sort of appeal to them. They were the ones to read so shout out to Amy. And to be clear, when we say the books they want to read, I think there’s an automatic take- preconceived notion that comes to mind of what we all think they want to read but if you ever been in a juvie you know it's not- like yea there’s the whole street fiction idea, reading tough books and books that sort of remind them of themselves- that is true. Those books are definitely some books I’ve checked out. Comic books and graphic novels are of course also important books.

 

Literacy rates are also lower and often times when it comes to incarcerated people in general- anyone who's incarcerated typically - statistics show that they're under literate but they also love to read romance novels and we don't think about that.

We don't think about the fact that these are 15 year olds and if you're talking about a boy population- the male population because- about 15 year old boys who are locked in prison who if they weren't in prison would be having their first loves, their first relationships, perhaps their first sexual experience- is dating all these sorts of things so in jail, they basically read romance novels as ways to project themselves into where they would be had they not been incarcerated- where a good girl saves a bad guy- you know all these sort of chokes that we all think are kind of silly and a bit corny but to them it's awfully liberating when they’re locked in a box. And I think even just being slow to assume that you know what children want to read in prison, I've learned a lot over the years it's not just- they just want to read shoot them up stories you know drug-dealing stories- you know. They want to read all kinds of things- superhero stories. They want to see themselves as heroes as...not as gangsters.

 

They've already been called gangsters by everybody they know. They've been called gangsters by their CO in jail, gangsters by their communities, by their teachers, sometimes a lot of them just want to see themselves as regular kids

- good guys who are doing more of the saving than sort of being saved so to speak. That's sort of an umbrella of what it's like in the juvies that I've been to everywhere in America from the south to the north- New York, DC, Cali, down south in Texas, everywhere- Michigan- you know- it’s the same everywhere.

 

Molly Ness

And how do kids react when you go in? What are their responses? What are you hearing from them?

 

Jason Reynolds

I mean it depends- you know. When you got young men in prison, there's a decorum and there's a social code- you know when it comes to how much enthusiasm you're willing to physically show. It's no different than going into a high school. High school students will work very hard to not let you know that they love you until it's over and then they'll... the stage and hang back and talk to you or stand in line to get autographs but they'll do everything to hold in their laughter or they'll do everything- you know- they'll wait for someone to ask a question before they ask a question. These are all sort of the strain social contracts built into our society when it comes to adolescence and insecurity and all those things that they're trying to work through as they become- you know- as they become themselves as they grow older and continue to evolve and change like all of us do. We've all been there and it's no different in prison, right. The first thing you experience when you walk into a jail of young people is that they’re kids. There's nothing that’s different except for the fact that they have more greens or browns. They’re walking with their hands behind their backs and they’re in a metal cage- right. There in a building that feels industrial, it feels factory- like, it feels like all the ways- prison is cold like the way prison feels, but besides that, when they walk in the room you don't see anybody buy a child. You see a 13-year-old, a 14-year-old their faces are doughy just like- their faces- nothing is hardened about them, so they'll sit down and they’ll scowl at you or they'll sit down and pout often times. But once you get going, they’re too ready to engage and they’re ready to talk. The truth of the matter is, they’re often times so happy someone has come to see them that this is a moment to talk to somebody who is not confined with them- think about it. They speak to the same people every day; the same kids, the same correctional officers, the same teachers like there's no one- there is no neighborhood. There is no Target or Mrs. Johnson who lives next door. There's no talking to your cousins who come over for the weekend- right. That's not a thing and so when anyone comes in to see them after you break the ice they’re just ready to talk. They're ready to laugh and joke. They're going to crack jokes on each other. They’re going to try to embarrass each other in front of the stranger- you know because all of that is a part of- sort of posturing in these spaces but for me it's always- it’s a time for me to let them know that there's somebody on the outside who’s thinking of them. There's someone who knows they exist.

 

America has the incredible privilege - an unfortunate privilege to forget about children who live in prisons.

There are so many of us who live our lives every day who do not ever think about the fact that thousands of kids - thousands and thousands of kids locked in jail doing hard time and my job is to let them know that - I know they’re there and I care about them and I will continue to make books that hopefully will tap into their realities- if not their presents, their futures.

 

Molly Ness

Well I'm sort of laughing to myself- the idea about how many social contracts I violated every time I've met you. I'm such a fan girl- you'll have to forgive me for that. When you talk about forgotten children, who are some of the other populations that you hope to work around book access with? Where are you hoping that we as a country and as a nation address issues of book access and equity? 

 

Jason Reynolds

The heartland. America's got to go to the middle of the country, writers have got to go to the middle of the country. I have been spending a lot of time. I just got back 3 days ago from Nebraska; Stuart, Nebraska- town of 7,000 people. I was in Iowa a little before that. I've been through Illinois and not Chicago, Illinois, the rest of Illinois, Onley, Illinois- Northwestern Illinois. I've been through Wisconsin and parts of Wisconsin that are not heavily populated. I've been through Kansas and not Kansas City, Kansas. I think so when we talk about the forgotten young people, I think we really- because so many writers live in New York and in DC and in Chicago and in LA, in Austin, Texas where all these populated major cities these sort of cultural hubs when it comes to progressive thought and the way that we see the world is that everything else like there's nothing there and the truth is- is that there's children there. There are children in these places who are in desperate need to see- living in major cities when you grow up in a cosmopolitan, metropolitan place even if you have nothing you could walk- walk to the library- you can walk to the library, you can walk to the corner store, you can walk to a bookstore, and just hang out in the book store and you don’t have to buy anything. You can just be in the space. You can walk to the YMCA. You can go to all these places by foot with no money and can spend time in a space where the information exists and usually meet someone who is willing to assist you in finding said information. I live right down the street of the library. They don't turn anyone away. You can just walk in there and there are people there waiting and willing to help you- to help you navigate this place or even to just help you feel comfortable in the space. If you're in Kansas; if you're in…, Kansas- a One-Stop town where there are still dirt roads where are you walking to? If you don't have books you don't have them. There is no other way. You don't have them that's the end of the story unless we figure out how to get resources. I think about the fact that there are kids- when I was in Nebraska there are kids who haven't seen an author in real life- you know. We take it for granted to go to LA and be in New York-l take it for granted to go to Austin and talk to the kids in Houston. If you're in the middle of a tiny little town in Wyoming, that's a very different experience because there are kids in that classroom who have never seen an author before and don't have- who may not have access to your books. I think about the fact that there's so many people in this country who know my name, but I never allowed myself to forget that there are also so many people who don't. After all the work and all the awards and all the sort of hyperloop, I can show up to a small town and they have no clue who I am because they don't have the resources to know who I am. But that’s not a thing- you know- Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson and Liz Acevedo and all these people that we sort of praise, when you go to a small town they don't exist. They don't exist right so I think my newest focus is to spend more time in the middle and to really put myself out which means that I’m going to have to inconvenience myself but if it means creating space for children, creating opportunity for children to- to see a broader world, to put books in their hands,

 

to help them recognize that the world is much bigger than the 7000 person town and that a 7000 person town is valuable simultaneously.

 

I think at this point and at this juncture in our country, I think that it's of utmost importance.

 

Molly Ness

Well the work that you're beginning to do in the middle of the country resonates so much with what I'm trying to showcase on this podcast and that is the idea- book deserts existing in these rural areas. When you look at the research and statistics just as you're saying the isolation and the lack of resources and the issues of transportation are so much more glaring in some of these rural areas and interestingly, when I started this podcast hoping specifically to feature some of these rural programs they're harder to connect to so hopefully the work that you stir up will bring some awareness and we can feature people who are really addressing book deserts in those areas. So let me ask you to give us a preview of a book that's coming out in Spring I believe of 2020. Tell us about Stamped: Racism, Anti-racism, and You. What can we expect from that? 

 

Jason Reynolds

Stamped is going to be interesting. The concept is simple. I mean Dr. Ibram Kendi wrote this academic- sort of scholarly tone that outlines the history of racist ideas in America from 1400 to Black Lives Matter- right. So we're talking about an overarching view of how we got here and recent from the world's first racist to why slavery started to the settlement of America, the building of America puritanism, colonization, the spurring of the American Indians, indigenous peoples, the building of New England, the building of University Systems, building of standardized testing, and where all that comes from. Eugenics, philosophers- I mean you can go on and on...economics, presidents, the Civil War on and on like really showing. I mean media, Hollywood, movies this it really is sort of this humongous undertaking to give us context. It doesn't give us answers on how to necessary solve anything. It contextualizes, so we can better understand that- that is sort of the purpose of it. We're not claiming to have answers were just saying here are the reasons why we have problems. This contextualizes it. I think we all talk about it within strange vacuums because we can speak about it in vacuums. It's easy to have paper thin refutations that can be refuted with paper thin arguments because we're not looking at it from a macro-level to show the historical context. Saying: no, no, no. This actually- is really hard to refute if you have all the other historical contexts to understand it. It did not come overnight it wasn’t born in the 1960s nor was it even born during slavery. We're talking about even before then, when all this started over in like Portugal and- you know pillaging North Africa. And how they had to figure out how to turn slavery into something that felt less immoral by creating a framework around it that was rooted in Christian salvation. And all like so all the sort of stuff. Now, my job- I was brought on to the project after he put the book out, won the National Book Award and it became arguably one of the most important race texts that we've had of a generation like one of those books that we’d be looking at for the next 50 years. And then I got a call and they were like we want you to rewrite the book- because it's 700 pages and so most of us either don't have the time or quite frankly don't have the intellectual capacity because it's such a dense piece of work and so I rewrote the book. And I did it my own way so it will feel and sound and feel like any other Jason Reynolds book except it's talking about history. And I think when I was working on it- the one thing I kept telling myself was how strange is it that we have yet to have a book about history or a history book for that matter that is written in the voice of someone who is not a scholar. Every single book about our past and that is seen as academic is written in academic voice is written with an academic tone and I honestly believe that’s for a lot of young folks that’s Kryptonite. I am related to a lot of older folks and to adults- it’s Kryptonite. Truth of the matter is- is that human beings tend to relate best in the midst of conversation- conversational tone is always going to work for us because it feels human. It feels ...in the best ways, it feels familiar in the best way, it feels comforting and warm so this is a book that gets at every single thing and that talks about in the original text except it does it in about 200 pages and it's a fun-ish, interesting, entertaining read that…

I hope every single student on Earth reads and every person reads. Adult read it because it's going to be easier for them to digest the information and we can have- have more informed and more thoughtful conversations around race once we better understand- truly understand its roots.

 

Molly Ness

Well my fourth-grade daughter thinks I'm super cool and trendy because I have an advanced readers copy of Look Both Ways. Now that I have finished hounding you to appear on my podcast, now I'm going to hound you for an advanced reader’s copy of Stamped. So, you are in for the next level of stalking. Obviously, I can sit and talk with you all day but as we wrap up, I wanted to ask you the question that I ask of every guest on the podcast. Knowing that ending book deserts takes more than just increasing access to books, but knowing that ending book deserts really also involves building a culture of reading where we identify ourselves as readers and we talk about our reading lives, I'm hoping that you can share with us a book from your past or present that has really influenced you as a person. Obviously, I'm looking at- I know listeners can't see this but I'm looking at you and there are just stacks and stacks of books behind you so clearly you're life-long reader and I understand the difficulty of just narrowing it down to one, but what is that book that stands out for you? 

 

Jason Reynolds

I'm stuck with...there’s just so many books. Recently, I'll say a book- recently, that kind of has rocked me is Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys. I think- I think it's just I think it's just a masterpiece. He got a long list too and deservedly so. I mean- I think he was able to- in a very short book- he was able to tap into the lives of young incarcerated black men, black boys who are incarcerated- right in a reform school that is abusing them which is what it is. It's just what it is. And I think the way that he did it was so masterfully done.

 

It’s been a long time since I read something that has rocked me to the core...

and when you read... if you're a writer and you read, you usually read as a writer so books don’t do what they do for everybody else. Sometimes because you're constantly reading with an editor's eye- right. So, you're reading, saying, oof, you should’ve done this, you could’ve done that, thats a nice turn of phrase. I’m jotting notes in the margin, I'm circling this- that's the way we all read for the most part- for better or for worse. But this book, it just- I couldn't do that because it was so gripping and so captivating and it was so well written. It was really just a master class in writing, and it was- and it was an interesting exploration of incarcerated children from a historical context. Brilliant. Everybody should read it. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.

 

Molly Ness

Well I will certainly add it to my list. It’s one of my favorite questions to ask people because it evokes so many memories of our past and our- what has influenced us. In my community I'm trying to push people past surface-level conversations where we talk about how busy our schedules are and really talk about our reading identity. My friend Cornelius Minor when I asked him for a book recommendation, he asked me a question which I still continue to think is brilliant. He asked me well- what- how do you like to feel when you read and so that’s a question that I use to guide my own text selections knowing that there is so many books and so little time

 

Jason Reynolds

What's your answer? 

 

Molly Ness

My answer of course- it depends on the day. A book that really forever changed my path would have to be Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities. I read it in college and it forever impacted my career choices. It made me so aware of the inequity of our public education system. It took me down the road of joining Teach for America. I taught in Oakland, California- thought I was going to use Teach for America as a stopping ground to law school and 20-plus years later, I'm still an advocate for literacy and book access and equity and public education so that books is a standout for me.

 

Jason Reynolds

That's amazing. Good on you!

 

Molly Ness

Well thank you so much for your time. I look forward to following all of your adventures and the work that you do in bringing book access and to make reading culture so relevant to so many youths today is just- it’s so inspiring. We appreciate all that you do for our readers around the world. Thank you so much for joining us.

 

Jason Reynolds

You got it.

Molly Ness

Take care!