Author Jason Reynolds shows students the power of seeing ourselves in stories

11/14/2019 | TACOMA, Washington

"There really were no books written for me. I needed to see my details. And because I didn't have those books, I didn't read anything," explained best-selling author Jason Reynolds to a packed Lincoln High School Auditorium Oct. 30. "I wanted to make sure, for y'all, that you didn't have that excuse."

​Hundreds pack into Lincoln's library for a book signing
Each of Reynold's books feature children of color and deal with issues such as racial relations and poverty. The inspiration for his stories comes from his childhood growing up in the Washington D.C. area in the 1980s and 1990s.

The stories in his newest book, "Look both ways," are drawn from his experiences walking home from school.

"I wanted to honor the autonomy of young people. It talks about all the things I did as a kid, hilarious and ridiculous," Reynolds said. He shared an anecdote from the book about his friend trying to improve his "crusty lips" before asking a girl out but mistaking Vick's Vapor Rub for Vaseline. Reynolds' ability to mix humor with serious subjects makes his books appealing to teenagers.

Lincoln student Justice Ryan has struggled to find books connected to her life experiences.

"There is not a lot of African American representation in books, especially good fiction books for teenagers. It's mostly nonfiction about slavery and stuff like that. I look up to him because he writes about everyday things that we go through. Having a book that you can relate to, that's inspirational."

"His books relate to all of us," said Lincoln student Jalai Ellis. "I knew if he came everybody would listen. That's why we wanted to bring him to Lincoln. I wanted more people to know about him."

Making Reynold's visit a reality

Ryan and Ellis are members of Lincoln's Project Lit Abes book club that raised money for months to make Reynolds' visit a reality.  ​ ​​​​

"Our students worked really hard to plan this event," said Lincoln teacher-librarian, Kristin Sierra. "The planning and preparing for this opportunity is one of the reasons why it means so much."

​Jason Reynolds answering student questions on Lincoln stage
​ ​​​​In May 2017, while Sierra was the teacher-librarian at Baker Middle School, Reynolds did a live Skype conversation with students. "After the Skype, seeing the incredible power of connecting students with authors of books they love, I asked if Tacoma could get on his schedule," Sierra said.

Lincoln could bring Reynolds to the school for a live event but would need to pay a speaking fee. From March to August this year, Lincoln's Project Lit group rallied support from individuals and businesses in the community—and raised $6,000 through the fundraising platform Donor's Choose.

The group received 42 individual donations, two local grants from the Tacoma Rainiers and Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, and seven local organizations matched individual donor contributions.

"We were blown away by the generosity of every single community member who gave, shared, retweeted, asked their friends and family. Our Donor's Choose was fully funded on Aug. 14, just in time for our Aug. 30 deadline," Sierra said.

Nearly 2,000 people attended the event, either in-person or virtually with live-streaming to 60 classrooms across the district. Following the discussion, hundreds packed into the Lincoln library for a book signing. 

Sierra credits her fellow teachers for the success of the event.

"The interest was so high due to the work of our teacher-librarians and classroom teachers, by reading and promoting books written by authors of color and about characters with diverse points of view."

All teacher-librarians have been trained on the importance of diversifying school collections to be more representative of our student body. And Project Lit is expanding to other high schools.

Exposing young people to reading and literature

Reynolds says exposing young people to reading literature motivates him.

Lincoln students, Jhane Ryan, Justice Ryan and Dehreus White discuss reading​ ​​​​

"You can't be what you can't see. Most people in my community had no idea that they could grow up to be writers. Had I seen a writer when I was younger, I could have set my sights on it a little earlier."

Lincoln Project Lit member, Dehreus White agrees: "I like him being a black man and coming here as an author. Because it's showing everybody that you can do it."

Sierra started the Lincoln Chapter of Project Lit when she began teaching at the school two years ago and has seen the club grow to 90 members. Project Lit is a nation-wide organization started by a high school in Nashville.

"Our chapter is focused on spreading the love of reading to our school community and celebrating books and authors we love," Sierra said.

This holiday season Lincoln's Project Lit is partnering with the school's Key Club and King's Books to add books to holiday baskets for needy families in Tacoma. They are collecting new and gently used books for toddlers to high schoolers.  Those interested in supporting the holiday book drive can mail or drop off books at Lincoln High School c/o Project Lit Abes' Book Drive (701 S. 37th St., Tacoma, WA 98418), or visit the King's Books wishlist. Each basket will include food, toys, and books befitting the ages of the families' children. 

This combination of service and reading engages students in the club.

"I don't think half these people would be in the library if it weren't for Miss Sierra," student Jhane Ryan said. "I feel like she brings a lot of hope to this school, and she inspired a lot of people read this year."