'Don’t be afraid of the book!’ Author Jason Reynolds tells Baker Middle School students what motivated him to start writing

5/20/2018 | TACOMA, Washington

​​Jason Reynolds never read a book cover-to-cover before he turned 18.

It’s not that he wasn’t smart enough. He just didn’t come across any books he could relate to as a black boy growing up in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s and 90s. 

​​​“I needed to see the things I saw in my neighborhood, but those books didn’t exist,” Reynolds told a group of Baker Middle School students earlier this month by Skype. 

Makaelah Williams writes during Baker students' Skype conversation with author
Jason Reynolds

​ ​​​​Now a bestselling author, Reynolds writes to ensure that kids growing up like he did will have books with the kinds of characters and situations they recognize from their lives. His books feature children of color and deal with issues like racial conflict and poverty.

Despite its often serious subject matter, Reynolds’ writing doesn’t feel heavy or oppressive.

“The way he writes about racial injustice is the most approachable and well-written I have ever experienced,” said Kristin Sierra, teacher librarian at Baker, who organized Reynolds’ May 3 Skype visit. “He has a talent for speaking from the perspective of a child.”

Reynolds told the students the inspiration for his books often comes from his own past. A childhood friend whose father tried to shoot him and his mother became the inspiration for Castle Crenshaw, the main character and narrator of Reynolds’ book “Ghost.” When Reynolds lost a close friend to gun violence at age 19, he and his friends briefly considered taking revenge. That inspired his book, “Long Way Down,” which focuses on a character in a similar situation.

​​​​​​​​​​Many of Tacoma’s middle school students discovered Reynolds’ work earlier this year during the Battle of the Books, an annual competition in which teams of students at each of the middle schools read 10 assigned books and compete answering questions about those books. The battle this year included Reynolds’ book, “Ghost.” 

The roughly 80 students who gathered to talk to Reynolds had all participated in the Battle of the Books. The students responded with cheers when he Reynolds mentioned that he’ll have a new book published in October.

Ronnie Griffin asks a question of Jason Reynolds.
​ ​​​​Some of the students wanted to speak with Reynolds so much that they began selling popcorn to try to raise the money to cover the fee he normally charges for such events. When Sierra emailed Reynolds to tell him about the students’ excitement, he offered to speak to them for free.

​​​​Reynolds told the students that once he did find a book he could relate to, it changed his life. “Black Boy,” a memoir by Richard Wright, tells the story of the author, who grew up in the South under Jim Crow laws, moved to Chicago as a young adult and became a writer. Reynolds began to see writing as something that could include people like him. Now he can serve as a similar role model to young people of color today, Sierra said.

“To see someone who comes from a similar place and has had great success doing something he didn’t even know he could do at their age is inspiring,” Sierra said.

​​​More of Jason Reynolds’ thoughts for middle school students: 

On writer’s block

“Writer’s block comes from the fear of writing badly, and I’m not afraid of writing badly. I know everything I write is going to be terrible—at first. You can’t fix what doesn’t exist. You’ve got to put it on the page.”

On the importance of reading and writing

“If you can’t read or write, or you refuse to read or write, it’s so easy for you to be taken advantage of. It’s easy for you to be made a fool.”

On his book, “Long Way Down”

“Don’t be afraid of the book. Y’all can read this! There’s nothing to it.”

On taking risks

“If it doesn’t scare you a bit, don’t do it. Everything you do should be a little bit difficult.”

​Students look at posters about Jason Reynolds and his books. 
​ ​​​​​​​​​​