Author Jason Reynolds hates boring books. He says so. Right on his website.
In fact, he hates them so much, he didn’t actually read one all the way through until he was 17. That’s when he found Black Boy by Richard Wright. Before that, he said he just didn’t see himself or his friends in the books that were out there.
Sure, he admits, he saw the stories of African American boys and girls and other people of color reflected in rap lyrics, in movies, and on TV. But books were something else.
“I gravitated to writing,” the 34-year-old New York Times best-selling author says. “I fell in love with the rhythm and poetry of language in rap, and I wanted to weave those things I loved into prose.”
Educated at the University of Maryland, Reynolds graduated and went on to write nearly a dozen young adult novels, including Long Way Down, about a young man in the aftermath of the shooting death of his older brother. It was longlisted for a National Book Award. He’s also the author of the Track quartet: Ghost, Patina, Sunny and Lu, each book taking a look at the lives and friendships of a group of kids on a demanding city track team. Lu, released October 23, is the latest and final installment in the series, and Reynolds will be in Houston to read from it and sign copies for his fans.
“It was a learning experience,” he says about writing the series, which has been deemed "pure gold" by the School Library Journal. “It stretched me to be imaginative in a different way. And I am so proud that I was able to build a world. Lu, all these kids—they’re people. I mean, they represent parts of all of us, and Lu is the part of us that’s insecurity.”
Reynolds describes Lu as the boy who has to face all those fears he thinks makes him less than others. An Albino who’s lightning-fast, he’s been bullied and made othered for something he can’t control. Reynolds said that with Lu, he made that "something" his Albinoism, but realizes people can be othered for anything.
“It could a learning difficulty, a cleft lip, you know, anything,” he says. “So, how do people combat that? Sometimes they change their posture, sometimes, it’s in the clothes they wear, all these shields people use to protect themselves. In Lu, I was looking to show that ego is rooted in that insecurity.”
Followers of the series will know that Lu is the gold-chain-wearing, looking-to-be-respected kid who’s co-captain of the Defenders. As the book opens, he and his team are on the cusp of competing in the track championship, and his parents have just laid on him some news that’s going to change the family dynamic. As the books progresses, he not only learns about himself, but also learns about mistakes his father has made that have some serious repercussions for him and Lu.
“I wanted to show how parents aren’t perfect,” Reynolds explains. “That adults can love their children and still make mistakes, but can also humble themselves and apologize.”
Those kinds of life lessons are the heart of Reynolds’ Track series, and he’s looking forward to connecting with his fans.
“Oh, man, that’s the best part,” he says about being a writer. “They’ve given me such a gift, maybe more of one than I’ve given them.”
One of the reasons he gravitated to writing young adult fiction, he says, is because he wanted kids to not only find themselves, but see that what they’re going through is normal. Reynolds believes many adults are quick to judge kids on their selfishness or the silly decisions they make.
“But they’re young,” he says. “They’re just young. And some of what they do is just adolescence. I think adults don’t know very much about the world kids live in. And something I’ve learned in writing about and talking to kids is that we, as a country, our world, our species, is going to be all right. These kids, this generation, is amazing. They’re more empathetic than any other in history. I feel so lucky to spend my life around them.”
Reynolds sees his job as helping kids make sense of their world, creating a tool kit of sorts, and letting his books serve as a witness to young people’s humanity. He hopes that his books validate the existence of his young readers, and show them that their struggles are real.
“If I’m not doing that, what’s the point?”
Jason Reynolds reads as part of the Inprint Cool Brains Reading Series on November 4 at 3 p.m. Free. Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School, 10410 Manhattan Dr. 713-521-2026. More info at inprinthouston.org.