YA literature is experiencing a renaissance. There are more intriguing voices and diversity in its pages than ever. In a new series, USA TODAY profiles five best-selling YA authors leading the charge to talk about the books, writers and moments that shaped their careers. So far, we've talked to Jenny Han, Angie Thomas and Adam Silvera. This week is Jason Reynolds. Still to come is Sabaa Tahir.
Jason Reynolds' first literary memory was of the children's book “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak. But it was not so much the story of Max's adventure that captured Reynolds' attention as the words themselves. Words like "mischief" and "rumpus" sparked Reynolds' belief in “the magic of language,” Reynolds tells USA TODAY.
But for the most part, growing up Reynolds did not find that magic in books. He felt no sense of connection. To him, most books were boring and their words were anything but magical. Instead, he found that spark with words through hip-hop music. At the age of 10, Queen Latifah would place him on the path to becoming an author.
“I'm reading her lyrics and I'm realizing that there's a connection between what she's doing with language and the poets that we learned about during Black History Month are doing with language because it is verse," he says. "That connection as a young person was mind-blowing because that was the beginning of my journey.”
It would be in verse that Reynolds would find that elusive magic. He discovered Nikki Giovanni’s collection of poems “Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day." “As a young person I'm reading this and I'm like, I don't know if I can get it all, but I love the way it feels in my mouth,” says Reynolds.
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It was not until college that he would come across a novel that would finally break through to him. It was the memoir “Black Boy” by Richard Wright. Actually, it was the first few first pages of the book, where a 4-year-old Wright lights his grandmother’s curtains on fire, that sparked something in Reynolds.
“The payoff came early whereas so many books I had been given at school felt like you had to work for the payoff in a way that I just wasn't really invested,” says Reynolds. With books assigned in school, Reynolds would usually struggle through the first 50 pages before he would get to what he considered the good part. “("Black Boy") drew me in because what it said to me was 'Oh, reading can be entertaining "
"Black Boy" would also show the author that books can be diverse. “I realized there were Black stories that remind me of my mother and remind me of my grandfather and remind me of my father. And so I started reading everything,” he says. Among his favorites writers were Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, James Baldwin, Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka.
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Reynolds' first success as a YA writer came when he was 21. The novel was “My Name is Jason. Mine Too.: Our Story Our Way.” Co-written with his friend Jason Griffin, the book follows a poet and an artist, one Black and one white, on their respective artistic journeys. It was not written as a YA book, but it was published as one. “We, of course, had no idea what (the publishers) were talking about. We had written a book about our lives and thought that surely this was for adults. I look back on it now and I realize the reason that the book was young adult was because we were young adults.”
Unfortunately, the book was not a commercial success. (Simon & Schuster plans to republish it in the summer of 2022.) So Reynolds stepped away from writing and worked for several years in retail. But that time was not wasted. Reynolds says it allowed him real-world experience in "studying humans" he wouldn't have had otherwise. It cemented his belief that "everybody wants to feel seen."
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Then one day Reynolds was visited by close friend Christopher Myers, son of the prolific children’s book author Walter Dean Myers. Christopher, an author and illustrator in his own right, told Reynolds his father was aging and urged him that "somebody's got to write those stories…write about the kids who may have seen some things that have caused them to be a little more walled. The kids who are too oftentimes inconvenient to love.”
So that is exactly what Reynolds did. He returned to writing and he wrote for those kids who were not seen. Both the industry and readers took note.
His 2014 novel “When I Was the Greatest,” a novel about a young man named Ali and his life in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of New York City, would win the 2015 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent.
He would follow-up with two books published in 2015: "The Boy in the Black Suit," about a young man called Matt who works in a funeral home (which received a Coretta Scott King honor) and “All American Boys,” co-written with Brendan Kiely, about a Black teenager assaulted by a white officer. "Boys" won the inaugural Walter Dean Myers Award from We Need Diverse Books, a Coretta Scott King Honor and became a USA TODAY bestseller.
Many books would follow, including “As Brave As You,” “Long Way Down” and “Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks” to name just a few. The awards would follow as well. Among them are the NAACP Image Award, the Newbery Honor, the Edgar Award, National Book Award finalist and winner of the 2021 Carnegie Medal. Currently he is the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature at the Library of Congress.
Now, in such a diverse time for YA fiction, who does Reynolds find exciting? In addition to such stalwarts and early writers as Walter Dean Myers, Angela Johnson, Rita Williams-Garcia and Jacqueline Woodson, Reynolds sees magic in quite a few of his contemporaries.
“I think Kacen Callender is a brilliant writer," says Reynolds. “I think what (they are) doing with writing about the intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality is genius.” There is also Dhonielle Clayton, who writes Black fantasy and it's using Black tradition, Black folk tales. She’s brilliant.”
Reynolds is a fan of Tahereh Mafi, Sabaa Tahir and Aisha Saeed because “I love that they're showing people of South Asian and Muslim backgrounds.” And he calls Matt Mendez a "genius" for his “writing about the border down in Texas."
"I can do this forever,” he says of talking about his favorite authors.
As for his own work, Reynolds and Jason Griffin are back together for the book "Ain't Burned all the Bright" next year. Coming in November, Reynolds stretches himself with an illustrated novel for younger kids called “Stuntboy, in the Meantime.” Illustrated by Raul the Third, the book follows the young Portico Reeves, whose secret identity is Stuntboy, the greatest young superhero you’ve never heard of. “It's super cool,” says Reynolds. “I’m really excited. I think it's it's going to be special.”
Perhaps even magical?
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bestseller Jason Reynolds says Queen Latifah's 'verse' blew his mind