Let’s Talk About Race, Kids
Author Jason Reynolds reimagines National Book Award-winning tome about history of racism for a YA — and now NWS — audience
By Anna Faller | Oct. 30, 2021
Award-winning author Jason Reynolds never intended to write for young adults. Instead, the category came to him.
“Most people enter into the industry in their late 20s or early 30s — sometimes even in their 40s or 50s,” he says. But Reynolds was a bit of a young adult himself when he struck upon his first publishing deal at age 21.
“I had written something that I thought was so adult,” he says, “but because I was young, my voice — naturally — was young.” The result was an instant “YA” stamp, and it’s one he continues to sport with pride. After all, he says, “Who else is there to write for, really?”
As Reynolds sees it, “whatever the world will be down the line” falls to its youngest inhabitants. “That’s why I fight so hard for young people’s imagination,” he says. “Every step of the way, there’s always some adult trying to put the kibosh on the power of a child.”
He sees his role as a writer as sparking that imagination and maintaining the flame. “I think that adults are terrified of what they would say if a child [came] to them and challenged them about their own ideas, because then they’ve got to grapple with that,” says Reynolds.
A WRITER’S PROCESS
Although Reynolds now begins each book with a YA audience in mind, he doesn’t start brainstorming the tale with situations tailored to youth. He starts with characters, always. “The one thing that’s consistent about human beings is that we invest in [each other] — not plotline or products,” he says. “If we take that idea and think about it in terms of storytelling, it seems most pressing to create human beings on the page that the reader wants to just spend time with. I have to care about the person first — that’s how it works.”
Reynolds isn’t the only one. He understands that in this “instant” era of taps and swipes, a young audience requires a connection with the characters, and quickly. “They’re the hardest to win over,” he says, but adds that, at core, what appeals to young adult audiences in books, on social media, and in the wider world isn’t that different from what appeals to adults, to all of us: “They’re still investing in people,” says Reynolds. “It doesn’t change.”
But, how could a book possibly compare with the complexity of digital media? The unfortunate answer is: It can’t. “The first thing I’ve sort of relinquished myself from is the idea that I can compete,” he says. “None of us can. That being said, I have to work with.”
This means that instead of trying to mimic cyber-stimuli or compete with it, Reynolds approaches them as educational tools. “What can I learn from Tik Tok?” he says. “What can I learn from YouTube? What can I learn from the videogames, from Fortnite and from Minecraft?” First and foremost, that everything about each book, from plotline down to supporting characters, has to move from the very beginning. “I know when I’m coming into [the writing] that from page one, it’s got to be punchy,” he says.
The average attention span of a teen today is about a minute and a half. Reynolds believes he has less time than that. “Reading is not a passive activity,” he says. “Tik-Tok, YouTube — [those] are passive. I have about 30 seconds to hook [my readers].” And hook them — again, and again — he does. “I use things that feel very real to them to show them in books as they actually are,” he says. “That’s it. That’s the only formula.”
That formula served Reynolds well, even as he took on the Herculean task of reimagining and making digestible for a school-age audience Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s 2016 National Book Award winner, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” When approached with the idea, in fact, Reynolds’ answer was initially no.
“Who says yes to that?” he says. “[Kendi’s book] was a masterpiece! Why would I want to tamper with it? I felt I wasn’t the right person for the job.”
Kendi, however, had other ideas and insisted Reynolds was.
After finally agreeing to take a swing at it, Reynolds — as he himself had predicted — struggled. “The first two drafts were terrible,” he says. “It wasn’t a natural space for me.” In fact, Kendi’s 700-page compendium is exactly the kind of text a teenage Reynolds would have tried to avoid. “I hated these kinds of books,” he says. “That’s why the first line is, ‘This is not a history book — at least not like the ones you’re used to reading in school.’ Once I wrote that line, it’s like I came back to myself. Two months later, I turned it in and that was it.”
The resultant 250 pages send readers headlong into the roots of our culture’s longest-standing racist ideals. The kicker? Virtually none of them are true. “The narrative that would justify slavery, indentured servitude, and all of these things that are still going on, started in the 1400s by a single man” — a Portuguese scribe named Gomes Eanes de Zurara — “who honestly just made it up,” Reynolds says. “All of this came from the figment of imagination and the understanding of language, which means that part of the fix, or at least the beginning of the fix, will have to use the same two things: imagination and language.”
Suffice to say Reynolds has the ‘language’ part covered. Imagination, however, is a multi-player game; that’s where the human component comes in.
“I don’t believe that anything changes through lecture. Conversation is always going to be what works for us when it comes to understanding each other,” says Reynolds. “So, let’s break this [concept of race] down in a way that makes it more relevant and easier to digest. And then, when we get into the nitty-gritty of it all, let’s take a moment to do a self-check. We’re all OK. ‘Race’ isn’t a bad word, and ‘black’ and ‘white’ aren’t bad words. We’re having a human experience on the page, and that’s all I want people to remember.”
Join the Conversation
New York Times bestselling author Jason Reynolds joins the National Writers Series for a virtual event at 7pm Thursday, Nov. 4 to discuss his celebrated collaboration with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, “STAMPED: Racism, Antiracism, and You.” The book, originally published in March 2020, is included with the purchase of a virtual ticket for $21.00. Guest host for the event is syndicated columnist, author, and arts advocate Rochelle Riley. For more information, ticket sales, and registration, please visit www.nationalwritersseries.org.
Meet the Host: Rochelle Riley
Award-winning author and journalist Rochelle Riley has served as the City of Detroit’s Director of Arts and Culture since 2019. A graduate of the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, Riley was a writer and newsroom executive in Louisville before beginning her near quarter-century career with the Detroit Free Press. Riley has authored five full-length books, including “The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery,” as well as this year’s “That They Lived: African Americans Who Changed the World.” Riley is a 2016 inductee of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, and is the co-founder of the national support initiative, Letters to Black Girls. She lives along the banks of the Detroit River.