Jason Reynolds inaugurates his new Track series with Ghost, the story of young Castle Cranshaw, who discovers something about himself the night his father shoots at him and his mother: He can run fast. When Coach Brody puts him on the track team, Ghost finds a community he never expected, one that includes different kinds of kids, some with stories like his own, all ready to be there for each other.
In his signature prose style—full of affection for his characters, humor and wisdom—Reynolds has crafted another novel with the same subtle elegance that has earned him several honors from the Coretta Scott King jury as well as a recent Walter Dean Myers Award. In fact, Reynolds has been hailed as the heir to Walter Dean Myers by writing fine stories about black kids, especially boys, stories that “peel away some of the layers and walls to expose the humanness and the connectivity in us all.”
Ghost begins the Track series. How many volumes do you envision?
As of right now, there will be four. But who knows? Maybe people will really like them, and I can convince the publishing company to let me write four more. We’ll see!
At the beginning of Ghost, Castle Cranshaw sees basketball as his real sport; he never really planned on joining the track team. What is your sports background?
I grew up loving basketball. I played almost everyday until I got to high school, where I joined the wrestling team and the track team.
“If writing isn’t an adventure for me, I can’t expect it to be an adventure for you all.”
What will you say to middle school readers, who don’t always like open-ended endings, when they ask why you concluded the novel at the start of the race instead of at the finish line?
That they have to check out the next book to find out what happened!
You seem to have a fondness for tough, independent-minded girls in your books: Love in The Boy in the Black Suit, for instance, and Patty in Ghost. Are they like the girls you liked in high school?
Absolutely. And the girls after high school. And the girls I still like. They’re my mother, my cousins and almost every girl/woman in my life.
In the touching scene in the Chinese restaurant when Ghost reveals his family secret to his teammates and coach, he thinks to himself, “I felt like they could see me. Like we were all running the same race at the same speed.” Was that a conscious theme—a character named Ghost and the theme of seeing—when you began the novel, or did it evolve?
It definitely evolved. I’m actually not even sure where the nickname, Ghost, came from. It just popped in my head and I ran with it (pardon the pun). But as the story started to unfold, the name Ghost unfolded with it, and I love when that happens. If writing isn’t an adventure for me, I can’t expect it to be an adventure for you all.
When Coach reveals his own story to Ghost, he says, “You can’t run away from who you are, but what you can do is run toward who you want to be.” One aspect I especially like about all of your books are the adult characters who act as mentors—parents, Mr. Ray in The Boy in the Black Suit, and in Ghost Mr. Charles and Coach, along with Ghost’s mother. Do you see these characters as your way to offer life lessons in a natural way, without ever needing to impose a lesson on a story?
Honestly, I struggle with this. I’m not sure if I ever approach a story thinking about what I can teach. And I typically don’t even think about that as I’m writing. I mean, I contemplate what the story’s about. But not what a kid can get out of it. On the other hand, I love adult characters who are interesting and complicated, and usually people who are that way always have really interesting nuggets to share. All of my mentors were that way—human fortune cookies—sweet but broken, with a tidbit of wisdom to share.
You said that writing As Brave as You, your debut middle grade novel, was the hardest thing you have written yet. Why was that?
For a few reasons. The first being that it’s in third person. I rarely write in third person POV, and, a little secret, As Brave As You was originally written in first person. But my editor said it didn’t work. So I re-wrote the whole book in third. Another hiccup for me was convincing myself that I could just write. When I thought of the term “middle grade," it immediately spawned the envisioning of a child swaddled in a blanket. Someone too young for reality, and so I wound up “talking down” to the reader. But thankfully my editor snapped me out of that one quickly. And lastly, I was used to writing young adult, which most people think of as stories about firsts. But middle grade stories are all about the curiosity and the questions that will eventually lead to those firsts. So there was definitely a recalibration that had to happen.
The cover of When I Was the Greatest features a gun on the cover, sparking challenges in some schools. How do you feel about that, given that guns and violence are a fact of life for many of your characters?
I’m torn. I understand the sensitive nature of the gun argument and would understand the outrage over the gun on the cover of When I Was the Greatest if we also thought about challenging covers with scantily clad teenage girls on them. And is it just that it’s a gun with no one holding it that makes people uncomfortable? Because there never seems to be a problem when that gun is being held by, say, a soldier. Ugh. Can I say ugh in BookPage? Ugh.
You have now been honored several times by the Coretta Scott King jury. What has that meant to you and your work?
Everything. It means that I’m part of an incredible legacy, and with that legacy comes responsibility. It means that I have work to do.
Earlier this year, All American Boys, co-written with Brendan Kiely, won the inaugural Walter Dean Myers Award for outstanding children’s literature in the young adult category. I know Walter Dean Myers’ son Chris is a friend of yours and introduced you to the work of his father; how does it feel to be a winner of the award and a writer who is carrying on Myers’ work?
Ah. Well, first, if it is somehow true that I’m carrying on Walter Dean Myers’ work, one can only help to be a pebble at the base of his boulder. It was an honor to win that award. It was humbling, surreal, emotional. My mother was there. So many friends. And it was held at the Library of Congress. It was truly a sweet moment. But again, this award, much like the Coretta Scott King Award, is less of a hat-tip and more of a charge. And I’m going to take heed. Better yet, I’m going to take pride.
Author photo credit Kia Chenelle.