If you feel like Jason Reynolds is suddenly everywhere you look in the world of young people’s literature, you’re not wrong. Since 2014, he’s published 12 books. He’s won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award, four Coretta Scott King Honors, two Walter Dean Myers Awards, a Newbery Honor, a Printz Honor, a Schneider Family Book Award and an Edgar, and for a moment in the spring of 2018, he had three simultaneous entries on the New York Times bestseller list.
His career reached a new height in January 2020 when he was named the seventh National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, just two months before the publication of Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You, his extraordinary new book, co-authored with Ibram X. Kendi.
BookPage spoke to Reynolds about his new ambassadorial role, how he unlocked the key to adapting Kendi’s work and why he believes young people have the power to change the world. His responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Tell us about being selected as the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. When did you find out you’d been chosen? What was that experience like?
I think I found out, gosh, maybe four to six weeks before it was announced. I think I knew in the beginning of November. They asked me, and I had to decide if I wanted to take it or not.
I know to everybody this decision must have seemed like a no-brainer, but you have to consider what it means. You have to consider what the expectations are, right? It can’t be a cavalier “yes.” It has to be something that you follow through with, because it comes with a certain responsibility. It comes with a certain accountability. So I kind of sat on it for a while in secrecy while I sussed out whether or not I was actually going to accept it.
There’s a lot at stake here . . . and I don’t want to be the one to botch it because I put opportunism over integrity.
I felt like anyone would feel in that moment: I felt honored. I’m 36 years old; I’d been given this incredible opportunity, and I felt a little overwhelmed. My life is a little overwhelming in general, so it was kind of like, “This is a new thing. This is a new challenge.” And you want to lean toward those challenges, to run toward the things that scare you. You want to swing the bat as hard as you can to try to make a splash and to make a change so you can affect someone’s life in a positive way.
So, with all those things in mind, I had to make sure I had the necessary support to make this thing happen. There were a lot of phone calls and that sort of thing with everybody involved, and once we were all on the same page, it was like, “Let’s go get ’em.”
Our next question is also about a decision. You’ve mentioned a few times that, when you were approached to take on the project of adapting Dr. Kendi’s book, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, you said no several times before agreeing to come on board. Can you tell us about why you said no and what eventually made you say yes?
It’s for the exact same reasons that I waited to take the ambassadorship. There are so many of us—and this isn’t to be disparaging; this is a reality, right?—who work in the arts, and a lot of us can’t really afford to turn down opportunities. But what’s dangerous about that is recognizing that not every opportunity is an opportunity for you. Sometimes an opportunity is better suited for someone else, but because this is a feast-or-famine type of industry, sometimes those of us who are scraping and scratching and doing the best we can to make a living for ourselves while also making something with some integrity that we can stand on become a little trigger-happy and say yes to everything and find ourselves in over our heads.
Now, I am fully aware of my deficiencies. I know my flaws. I know my weak points. I know where I struggle. So when Dr. Kendi asked me to do this, I said no because I have a lot of respect for him and his work. To take on something that I wasn’t quite certain I could manage or do justice to honestly felt irresponsible and disrespectful. I said no because I wasn’t a scholar. I wasn’t an academic. I wasn’t an exceptionally good student. I don’t know how to study. I don’t know how to research. These are very real things about me that I know and that I try to be honest about.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Ibram X. Kendi reveals his favorite Jason Reynolds book!
Dr. Kendi asked me again after that, and I said no again. I also was super busy, so it was kind of like, “I don’t want to take this on and then not deliver and then drop the ball with arguably one of the greatest scholars of our time! There’s a lot at stake here. This is a very important conversation, and I don’t want to be the one to botch it because I put opportunism over integrity.”
The third time he asked, I think, was the time I finally said yes. That conversation was where I realized that he was asking me to do this because he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He said, “You are the perfect translator of this work. You are the voice that can do this. You and you alone. You’re the one who has to do it. You’re the one I’m asking for, because I believe that you have the ability and the chops to make this happen.”
And I realized in that moment that it was bigger than me. It was bigger than my fears and insecurities about scholarship. It was bigger than even my respect for him. What it really boiled down to was my respect for kids, which is at the highest magnitude, and the idea that this conversation is bigger than either one of our lives. One day we’ll be long gone, and hopefully, if we do our jobs, they’ll have a concordance—they’ll have a document that they can lean on for vocabulary and language to wrap around such a complex yet perennial issue in this country.
Tell us about the process you went through in figuring out what Stamped was going to be, about finding your way into the book, about why the book looks and sounds the way it does.
It was originally supposed to be an adaptation, and that’s what I tried to make it. But I was failing, because it felt like I was trying to make a young readers’ version of Stamped From the Beginning. I felt that either I had to make sure that I was tipping my hat to Ibram, which would then lose the young reader, or I needed to pander to young people by making this complex information oversimplified, which then disrespects everybody. I couldn’t figure out where the sweet spot was. I was still really insecure about tampering with the work, so I kept turning in drafts that were like edited versions of Stamped From the Beginning. I had cut this, I had trimmed that, but it still felt very much like a piece of scholarship, which was not what we wanted. At the very least, it wasn’t working.
So I had a meeting with Lisa [Yaskowitz], our editor, and she said, “Jason, it’s not working because it’s not you! We hired you to do you. Ibram asked for you because he believes you have a voice. We want this to be a Jason Reynolds book. We know what you do. That’s why we asked you.”
And I said, “In order for me to make this a Jason Reynolds book, I have to ruin what he did—I have to ruin it,” and she said, “OK! Do that. Ruin it. Take it apart. Dismantle it.”
I tried to figure out how to keep everything that he had done, in terms of his research and his language and his words, but I needed this thing to feel like me.
I said, “Not only do I have to ruin it, I also have to poke at this kind of book, the kind of book that he made, not because I think it’s not a masterpiece, because it is, but because a kid doesn’t want to hear about how much of a masterpiece it is. You know?”
Kids want to be a little more irreverent when it comes to ideas. This book now starts by saying, “This is not a history book.” It starts that way so that I can say, “This ain’t one of them boring textbooks that y’all are used to.” That opening came only after I allowed myself to just do my thing like I would normally do, loosened up and trusting in my intuition.
Can you talk about how the idea of translation, rather than adaptation, played a role in your creative process for Stamped?
In translation, much is lost and much is gained. To create a translated work is to have a new thing. Because language is so different and it’s so transient, so liquid and malleable, and there aren’t always one-to-one translations from word to word, you’re going to have to take some liberties and make a new thing, which is why a translated novel is as much the translator’s novel as it is the original author’s.
When I finished the edition of Stamped that I turned in, we realized that it’s not an adaptation. It’s not a young readers’ version. It’s a remix. It’s a very different thing. It’s a different book that stands on its own.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of When I Was the Greatest, Jason Reynolds’ first novel.
When you think of a remix, especially a remix from the 90s, it’s basically a whole other song. The vapors of the original song are there, right? Maybe the same author there, maybe a similar bass line, but this is a whole new song. And it stands alone.
And shout out to Ibram, because when I turned this book in, he’s the one who said, “Look, this is Jason’s book. This isn’t even my book anymore, and that’s a good thing. It’s his. He owns this book. It’s my information, but it’s his book.” I appreciated that, because I put myself in this thing. I tried to figure out how to keep everything that he had done, in terms of his research and his language and his words, but I needed this thing to feel like me. That’s what I’d been asked for, so that’s what I tried my best to deliver.
A remix will also sometimes add samples from not only the original song but other sources as well. When you realized you were going to create a remix, did you then feel a need to do additional research, to bring in other sources of information?
Of course—but I was careful. For instance, when Ibram’s book talks about rap music, I think he talks about “Fight the Power,” if I’m not mistaken. But there were a ton of songs that year, so I looked at all of them to see how many were very similar to “Fight the Power,” and that provided an overview of what was really happening at the time. Bringing some of that to the forefront—that’s on me.
There are a few other moments in the book where I pulled from some of my own information, but I only did it if I needed it for a flow. Ibram essentially gave me a cheat sheet of nonnegotiables, said, “Here are some of the key elements that cannot be missed in this book,” and what I had to do was figure out how to get from point to point seamlessly. And sometimes that took some acrobatics. It took bending and stretching and pulling things from outside sources, so I only did it when I needed to create bridges. But other than that, the original work was so thorough that only when I needed to leap from here to there did I have to figure out ways to make that happen.
Did you find that working on the sections of the book that deal with history from before you were alive was any different than dealing with the history you’ve experienced yourself?
Of course. To me, the part that is most relevant is the Angela Davis section. Obviously, it feels the most comfortable, the most familiar. It’s what I know; Angela Davis is still alive, and I’ve seen her. That’s all a very real thing, and everything referenced in that section is what I personally grew up hearing. I was alive when Reagan was in office, you know? These are things that felt really familiar, so that section felt a little more . . . I don’t want to say easier, but it was definitely less difficult when it came to the translation, because there were so many touch points.
Honestly, even in Stamped From the Beginning, that’s the section I found most compelling. If you ask people who read that book, they’ll say the same thing, that that’s the part they felt like they could really bite down on because it’s the part that’s most familiar. It’s the part of our history that we can put our hands on. My mom was alive for every single part of that! You know what I mean? My mother!
It’s going to be really important to have adults on board now, because adults are going to have to be able to facilitate the discussion once a young person comes to them and asks, “Am I racist? What does this mean?” I want to make sure that we’re all equipped for that moment.
The rest of the book—honestly, every other section besides the Angela Davis section—was tricky. Not tricky as in hard, just tricky in that I had to make sure I was pinpointing what the thesis was and then figuring out ways to support it without it becoming garbled or boring, keeping the pace, making sure everything was there that needed to be there, eliminating the things that didn’t need to be there and giving it a little color and a little spice so that we could keep young people engaged and connecting it to their lives. Showing, for example, that school has been racist since school has existed in this country, and here’s how. Some kids are going to read that and be like, “I always knew it!” Right? I was trying to figure out ways to really show how embedded this stuff is, how old it is, how long it’s been around. I wanted to make it real for kids in their lives today, and that was a little more complicated. It was easier to do that for events from, say, the 1970s, because they study that in school. But they’re not studying Cotton Mather.
How did you feel as you worked on the sections of the book that critique the work of black leaders throughout history, or the sections that discuss the flaws and the racist ideas that are embedded in their work?
I felt conflicted—but I also didn’t. The reason why is—and I feel this way about every facet of our lives—no matter how great you are, no matter how well-intentioned you are, no matter how much you’ve done, if I love and respect you like I say I do, then you still have to be open for critique. Period. If I really respect you, if we’re going to agree that all things are able to be assessed and critiqued, then no one is off the table.
Everybody is complicated, and that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t critique, for example, Dr. King in the framework of white supremacy. He made the decisions that he made due to the pressure of white supremacy. His assimilationism had everything to do with oppression and white supremacy. If he hadn’t felt the pressure of white supremacy, perhaps he wouldn’t have felt the need to assimilate, but his assimilation in and of itself is racist.
That’s a really, really painful thing to admit, but it’s a necessary thing to admit in order for us to realize that the conversation is far more complicated than we like to give credence to. You do not have to be white to perpetuate white supremacy. You do not have to be white to perpetuate racist ideas and policies. We see it all the time.
The truth is, if we’re looking at history as our compass, it will show us over and over again that the way to change is through children. The way to change is through youth.
Most of us were raised in households where we were taught, “This is how you walk. This is how you talk. This is how you brush your hair. This is how you look. This is how you treat people. This is how you act around white people so that you can get a fair swing.” I’m not mad at my mom for doing the best she could within the framework of what she experienced as a person who came face-to-face with white supremacy every day of her life, but I have to be able to tell her that she shouldn’t have ever had to. Her teaching me how to assimilate and how to be doubly conscious, to code switch, these are things that we take great pride in, but what we don’t know is that although they come from survival, they are also, in and of themselves, racist ideas.
Black people think they have to be a certain kind of black person in order to get a fair shot and to get ahead. It’s not just white folks who believe that. That belief comes from a very real place, historically, but if we allow that belief to persist, it becomes problematic, because we deserve to be our whole selves all the time. Once I understood that—once I understood what Dr. Kendi was saying—then it became unbelievably liberating.
And it doesn’t mean that Dr. King is any less Dr. King or Marcus Garvey is any less Marcus Garvey or Barack Obama is any less President Barack Obama. It means that they’re flawed when it comes to the conversation of race. It means that they, too, are affected and impacted by white supremacy in America.
You do a lot of work with students. You visit classrooms, do school presentations and assemblies—and over the next two years, you’re probably going to do even more! Are there things in Stamped that you’re looking forward to young readers connecting with? Things you might be worried or concerned about? What about the adults who are always in the room for interactions between students and authors? What are you hoping they’ll connect with in the book, and what do you think might be a little hard for them?
Honestly, because of the intellect and the emotional maturity of young people, they’re the ones I’m least concerned about when it comes to this book.
Over the years, I’ve been in the mix and in the mud with these kids. I’ve talked to them about All American Boys, which is about police brutality, white supremacy and white privilege. It’s one of the first books that we’ve had where we can have an open dialogue about white privilege, and the kids are always on board. And even when they don’t understand or they feel a little embarrassed or they feel a bit of guilt or shame, they’re almost always able to raise their hands or come to us afterward and say, “Listen, I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I’m feeling funny because I don’t want to perpetuate a bad thing. I have friends who are from other backgrounds, and I just don’t want to be harmful. Help me understand what my role is.”
We have had these conversations with them over and over and over and over again, and because I’ve been in these situations for so many years and I’ve done this so many times, I can say that I think the kids are totally game to have the discussion. I think they want to know why their parents are so up in arms all the time about the issue! I think they want to know more than Dr. King and Harriet Tubman. I think they want to know what exactly is happening.
You want to lean toward those challenges, to run toward the things that scare you. You want to swing the bat as hard as you can to try to make a splash and to make a change so you can affect someone’s life in a positive way.
Now, do I think there will be some kids who are broken in half by this? Yes, I do, and that really bothers me, but I hope that in those moments this book is used to be teachable. I hope it isn’t something kids read on their own, depending upon on their age and background. I think this is a community read. I think it’s something that should be read in the home and in classrooms. I didn’t watch “Roots” by myself; my mom sat with me, and we watched it when I was a kid. I think there are some emotional things in this book that kids will understand and can work with, but I also think there needs to be an adult to facilitate.
After the first year of touring for All American Boys, we realized that we had been doing damage, because we’d been going to schools, having these really intense conversations and then walking out of the school and leaving the school a mess. So we started telling people, “If we come to your school, we’d like there to be facilitators when we leave to help process some of the information.”
So it’s going to be really important to have adults on board now, because adults are going to have to be able to facilitate the discussion once a young person comes to them and asks, “Am I racist? What does this mean?” I want to make sure that we’re all equipped for that moment, that everyone reads the book and understands it so that we can better guide the discussion toward something that’s healthy and not harmful. I’m in no way interested in harming young folks. If anything, the point of the book is to arm them with information so they can have fewer emotional conversations about race and more factual, informed, historical conversations around race, so that we can better understand where we are and where we’re going.
Young people are resilient. I just need adults to make sure that they don’t get in the way. Show the way, but don’t get in the way.
I’m not going to lie and say that I’m not concerned about young people, or say that I expect there to be no hiccups along the way. There will be some messes made. But I also know that messes are necessary and that we need adults there, ready not to coddle but to help young people process what exactly is happening and what they’re feeling.
This is going to be pulling back a veil from the faces of a lot of people, adults included, who don’t understand why black people can’t do this or black people won’t do this or black people always say this—all these things that we’ve leaned on for so long. This is going to be the book to reveal that there are actual reasons that things are the way they are, and they started 400 years ago!
So there will be some pushback. And so be it. But I trust the kids. Young people are resilient. I just need adults to make sure that they don’t get in the way. Show the way, but don’t get in the way.
Young people today have a lot to feel discouraged about and even more to feel disempowered by. They’re not able to make their own decisions about much of what happens in their lives. What would you say to a young person who feels like big changes are beyond their reach—that they’re just going to take too long and that their own actions to create change while they’re young won’t ever amount to much?
I would tell them that they have to do their history, that’s all. My little brother is 18, and I tell him this all the time: Scratch just beneath the surface, and you will realize it’s always been the youth. Always. Every single social movement starts with the youth.
There are famous examples—like John Lewis, who was 17 when he walked across that bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday—but there were people younger than him on that bridge, too. Think about the young people down in Parkland; those are teenagers who are pushing the conversation around gun control in America. Look at Greta. She’s 15, and she’s one of the loudest voices on the planet about the planet.
So when young people ask, “What can we do?” what I always tell them is, “What you’ve been doing.”
I think about the Black Lives Matter movement. Three adult women coined the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” but the people in the streets of Ferguson were kids. Teenagers. I think about the walk-outs that I’ve been to, where teenagers were walking out of school, saying, “We’re taking this day, and we’re going to enact our right to protest,” and doing sit-ins and stand-ins. I’ve been to a school in Brooklyn where they protested in the school, and they locked the teachers and administrators out of the school and wouldn’t let them back in until they had listened to what the students had to say.
I really don’t think the question is, “What can we do?” It’s not. I don’t let young people off the hook when it comes to this.
So the real question isn’t, “What can we do?” The real question is, “What will you try?” The truth is, if we’re looking at history as our compass, it will show us over and over again that the way to change is through children. The way to change is through youth.
Now, does that mean that you get to be irresponsible? No. There’s a fine line between irreverence and irresponsibility, and that means that this takes planning. It takes thinking. It takes thoughtfulness. It takes perfect execution. It takes all these things that are part of the process. But please believe that if anyone has the power to do anything, it’s young people.
Do you know why young people have more power than they think they have? Because they don’t have to worry about paying bills. They don’t have to worry about whether their mortgage is going to be paid. If a young person decides that they want to take some time and go fight for something, they can do it in a way that’s more free than their 40-year-old mother who has to make sure she keeps a roof over their head and has to go to work every day.
This is not to mention their built-in social networks—not the ones on their phones, although those are also important, but the ones at their schools! Schools are full of people they’ve known and been with for four years (sometimes eight years), with whom they are already connected! That is a built-in movement, if they so choose.
So I really don’t think the question is, “What can we do?” It’s not. I don’t let young people off the hook when it comes to this, because I love them, but my fear is that they’re afraid of difficulty and they’re afraid of challenge. I believe that if I love you like I say I do, then I can’t let you off the hook because you’re afraid or apathetic and you won’t admit that you’re afraid. The truth is that you can do what you want; you just can’t be afraid. Or you can be afraid, but be fearful while walking forward. Carry it with you and keep it moving. When you really think about it, what greater time is there to fight for a thing? Before life gets complicated!
That’s what I’m really trying to make sure young people understand. I think about Ferguson. I think about some of the uprisings have happened in the Black Lives Matter movement. I think about people tweeting from places like Libya. I think about how the Women’s March was organized through social media—millions of people showed up to one place because of social media! And then you say that you want me to let you off the hook or you want me to believe that you can’t do that, too? Nah! I love and respect you too much to let that slide.
Author photo by Jati Lindsay