"I gave up books at nine years old," said Jason Reynolds, author of Ghost and As Brave As You, during a moving and frequently funny keynote address at the ABC Children's Institute 5 in Portland, Ore., on Friday morning. He discussed his journey as a reader and writer and the importance of seeing oneself reflected in art and fiction. "So the question becomes: How is it possible a kid like this, who didn't read anything, grows up to become a man who writes books for kids?"
Reynolds recalled going to school in Washington, D.C., and being asked to read books such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men, books to which he could not relate and in which he never saw reflections of his own life, at a time when virtually no books were being published about what was going on in communities like his. During the 1980s and 1990s it was only in rap music that he could find those reflections. He realized that despite how much older generations seemed to detest rap music, rappers were the YA authors of his generation, who "told our stories honestly," in ways that might make others feel uncomfortable but made him feel "so necessary" and "so significant." It dawned on him that rappers like Queen Latifah and Tupac were poets, and part of a poetic tradition that has been around much longer than rap music itself.
"Nobody ever told me that, though, because our parents and our grandparents were too busy trashing our music," he said. "So here I am, mind blown, and I realize that perhaps Queen Latifah's 'Ladies First' and Maya Angelou's 'Phenomenal Woman' are the exact same poem, just a generation apart."
After that, Reynolds knew he wanted to be part of that poetic tradition--to be Queen Latifah, as he put it--and though he didn't read during the rest of grade school and high school, he wrote poems every day, about his own life and the world around him. In college, he struggled in his literature classes for many of the same reasons he disdained books at a younger age. It was not until he got a job working at a bookstore that all that began to change.
Karibu Bookstore [which had several stores in the Washington, D.C., area, and closed in 2008] celebrated the works of people of African descent. ("Except when Harry Potter came out, we had that," remarked Reynolds. "We're not going to pass up on that money.") While working there, he read Black Boy by Richard Wright, the first book he'd read since childhood, and saw some of his own life reflected in it. Gradually he began going through the shelves, reading James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison, and the way he thought about literature began to change.
At the same time, a new genre of books emerged. Known as street fiction or urban fiction, and featuring titles like Every Thug Needs a Lady, the books proved immediately popular but were derided as an insult to literature--"it became the new craze, but it also became the new pariah." As a community-focused bookstore and given the demand for those titles, Karibu had to stock those books, while hoping to use such titles as an opportunity to handsell better books. And although many were perfectly willing to dismiss the books and judge those who bought them, few bothered to wonder why they were so popular in the first place.
"The truth is, as far as I'm concerned, that those books were serving and filling the same void that rap music filled for me 15 years before," said Reynolds. He realized that these books were not so different from the work of Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim. "For some of us it was like, this is my life. Whether you like it or not."
Reynolds worked at Karibu only for only a year, and not long after that he graduated from college and moved to New York. Six months later, he signed his first book deal, but the book came out and flopped. After working a plethora of jobs for a number of years, he thought his "Queen Latifah days" were over and that he would leave the book world for good. But then writer and illustrator Christopher Myers encouraged him to take a chance on himself, to write in his "natural tongue." He tried, and wrote a story about his life growing up, in a style of his own, that became When I Was the Greatest, his break-out title.
"What I like to tell young people is that the story that you're looking for, you already have it," said Reynolds. "Booksellers, it's your jobs to do the same thing, to buttress that, to reinforce that by the selections that you have in your stores... by the stories and the books that may seem a little on the margins. It's your responsibility to know those books, too." --Alex Mutter