Design Matters: Jason Reynolds 

Jason Reynolds—award-winning author and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature—discusses his prolific writing career that inspires young readers to discover their own stories.


Debbie Millman:

Jasonwritesbooks.com. That’s the URL of Jason Reynold’s website. And man, he’s not kidding. Jason writes a lot of books. He’s not yet 40 and his first novel wasn’t published until 2014, but he’s been writing books like there’s no tomorrow. He’s the author of some of the most celebrated YA fiction of our time, including All American Boys and the best-selling Track Series. He also writes comic books and books of poetry, and has collaborated with Ibram X. Kendi on a young person’s book about racism and anti-racism called Stamped. He joins me to talk about his career and a few of his latest books. Jason Reynolds, welcome to Design Matters.

Jason Reynolds:

Thank you so much for having me. I feel like I’ve made it now. This is it.

Debbie Millman:

Oh, god. Jason. I understand that you used to unwind by crocheting.

Jason Reynolds:

Hmm. That’s true. That’s true. That’s funny. Nobody ever brings that up. Gosh. Yeah. I learned to crochet when I was young, when I was, oh, I don’t know, preteen, around that time, by one of my mother’s friends. And really, it started as a way to make hats for myself that I couldn’t find in the store and have a little more control over my fashion sense. That’s really what was happening.

Jason Reynolds:

I was a young, sort of eclectic child who was always trying to figure out his personal style, and this was sort of a leg up. I felt like I had an upper hand, and so I learned to crochet. And what it ended up being was a tuning fork. What it ended up being was a grounding mechanism, and teaching me things that nothing has taught me except for writing. So to crochet, you have to be patient and you have to be detail oriented. You have to be willing to take it all apart if you make any mistakes. If I make a mistake, you got to… the whole thing is going to be off track, it’s going to be lopsided.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. Can’t miss a loop.

Jason Reynolds:

Yeah. You can’t drop a loop. You can’t drop a stitch. And I learned that young, and I think it helped me along my process as I got a little older. So shout out to Miss Barbara, who taught me how to crochet.

Debbie Millman:

You are the only born son of Isabell and Allen Reynolds and you were raised in Oxon Hill right outside Washington, DC. And I understand before you were born, your mom had a reading with some psychics who told her she needed to guard you because you were going to do special things, and you’ve said that this keeps you hopeful when you feel like you’re not doing some special things. Did that happen a lot when you were growing up?

Jason Reynolds:

You know, it’s funny. That reading has been the thing that has been the propellant for me, but it’s also been, as I’m talking to my therapist more and more these days about that reading, it’s also been a point of pressure, right? Because it’s one of things that… My mom got that reading when I was still in utero and there was a lot to that reading. It was also about how me and this person, me and my mother, had lived all these lifetimes together and how this would be the final lifetime, and that we would have a connection that would feel special in a different way, all of which is true. But also that she had to guard me and make sure that she did the job because I was supposed to do all these great things.

Jason Reynolds:

All of this is great, except when you’re told that when you’re seven, it can put an extra weight on you because you now realize, “Oh no, I have to change the world in some kind of way, because it’s been preordained.” On the flip side, though, it makes you puff your chest out a bit, because it’s like, “Well, all I have to do is stay focused and we’ll see what comes. We’ll see if this thing is real.”

Jason Reynolds:

And my mom was also good about like, “Look, this isn’t a pure science.” This is something that my mother believes in, but she’s no fool. She understands that life is life and real things are real things, and that whatever is happening in the cosmos or in the universe is its own sort of thing. And all of it is shifting and you know what I mean? None of it is concrete. And so she did say this to me and did explain these things to me, but also is good about being like, “Eh, whatever it is that you do will be the thing that is fruitful for the world, regardless. You don’t have to be Martin Luther King.”

Debbie Millman:

You’ve said you were raised in a household of really strong women who did not suffer fools and who believed in hard work and persistence. And from the time I think you were two years old, your bedroom routine included the affirmation, “I can do anything,” as if it was a bit of a mantra. And you’ve said that she did this to make sure you understood that the world was yours and that you could eat the world if you wanted to.

Jason Reynolds:

Absolutely.

Debbie Millman:

Did you believe her?

Jason Reynolds:

I didn’t have a choice. I think that when you’re that young and… This is the beauty of language, right? That if you repeat that over and over again, language has a way of living in the body. It has a way of fossilizing and attaching itself to the identity. This is why we have to be careful with language. We have to be careful with the things that we say, the things that we write, even the things that we say to ourselves silently. It’s a tricky thing, and so my mother understood this because this is a woman who basically is like 1960s, ’70s, hippie, Black hippie type. And so, as you can see, there’s the psychics, and the readings and the mantras, and this is all very… or this is before all of these things have now been commodified and a really strange and very un-vogue these days.

Jason Reynolds:

But back then, as a little kid growing up in my neighborhood, it was important that my mother convinced me that I could do anything, because she felt like if I believed that I could do anything, then I could, despite the challenges the world might have for me, because I was a Black boy, because I’m a human in the world. Life is complicated. She wanted to make sure that I knew that the world was whatever I wanted the world to be, and that I could design my own life, that I could be the architect of my human experience.

Jason Reynolds:

That’s a powerful thing to tell a child because, as I got older and it was time for me to sort of take on a career or do this in school, or do that, I only know that I can do anything. So I don’t have any fear when it comes to trying anything or learning anything, or I don’t have any of that because that mantra is tethered to my vertebrae in a different way.

Debbie Millman:

Is it true that you sometimes still whisper it to yourself?

Jason Reynolds:

Of course. Of course. Of course.

Debbie Millman:

I read that and I was like, “Oh, I wonder if that’s true.”

Jason Reynolds:

That is true. That is true, especially in moments of doubt. I’m still a person who carries his insecurities. That’s just a part of who we are as human animals. My insecurities are very real, very real, and I try to make sure people know that. I think, sometimes, we look at our heroes and we forget sometimes that they have vulnerabilities and weaknesses and insecurities, that they too struggle with very basic things. And I think, in those moments, “I can do anything” is something that I can always run back to as an anchor.

Debbie Millman:

You’ve written about how your father was impossibly cool. He was covered in tattoos. He wore gold chains. He rode motorcycles. He had guitars and wore tight pants. And he was also a psychiatrist and the director of a mental health clinic. And I read that when you were a little boy, he wanted you to be comfortable around anyone who was neuro-atypical or had addiction issues, and he often had patients over for dinner, which is rather atypical as well. What was your reaction to all of this?

Jason Reynolds:

As a kid, I just thought it was all very normal. It’s so funny. I look back on it all now, and we’d had family barbecues and my father’s clients would come to the barbecue, and some of them were living with schizophrenia or addictions, and bipolar too, and all sorts of things that honestly never seemed strange or abnormal because they’re not strange and abnormal. And that was his point. He wanted us to make sure that we were okay with the fact that people’s brains all work differently, including the people in our immediate family. My older brother lived with all sorts of things. I live with my own mental illness. My father had his own.

Jason Reynolds:

And so I think his goal with that was to humanize everyone and to make sure that we understood that no one is any better or any worse than anyone else, and that our brains do what our brains do but our lives on this planet are all valuable lives. And that was a gift. To his credit, he also… because he was this very macho man. The gold chains, the tattoos, the motorcycles. He really was all… The cigars. He was the quintessential bad boy, but he was very affectionate, specifically toward his sons. He kissed his boys. It was a big deal for him.

Jason Reynolds:

And the reason why I bring this up is because I think about my upbringing and I think about how my friends started to come out to me when I was very young. Seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade, my male friends began to tell me that they were gay. Many of them. All of which were absolutely fine, as far as I was concerned. Like, it was no big deal. As I got older, though, and you continue to traverse homophobic spaces, which coming from my community was a normal thing. Homophobia was a standard.

Jason Reynolds:

And as you traverse the strange gauntlet of homophobia, you start to wonder… At least me, I started to wonder, why is it that I’ve never had a problem? And then I think back to my father. It is never strange for a man to kiss a man, not to me because my father kissed us so much. He was so affectionate. Nothing seemed strange about this as a young person. It never registered as different because it wasn’t different in my household. My father, who is now gone, I’m forever grateful for that, for sure.

Debbie Millman:

You’ve talked about how, when you were 10 years old and in the seventh grade, your whole life changed. Your parents split up, you started at a new school. This is when you first began being bullied. It was also the first time you ever started to fail. You gave up reading. Your grandmother died. But it was also when you started to write, so I wanted to talk about that time. Take us back to that year. It’s interesting. Sixth and seventh grade were when my life really blew up as well. My parents had gotten divorced right before that, but my mom got remarried to a man who was brutal to us and everything changed. Everything changed. It’s sort of a before-and-after line in my life. Talk about what you were going through and how you thought about it all.

Jason Reynolds:

Yeah. It was the worst and best year of my life. The first piece of context to that time, though, is that I was younger than I was supposed to be for that age, for that grade. So I was a 10-year-old in the seventh grade. I had skipped a grade back in second grade. I skipped because I just had advanced skills in certain ways and I was going to fail. If they didn’t skip me, I was going to fail because I was bored to death and refused to do anything. And my birthday’s in December, so because of that, for the rest of my academic career I was two years behind everybody else. So when I get to… So at 10 years old, I start middle school. My parents split, my father moves out and, because he moves out, he becomes the enemy because he’s the person who left.

Jason Reynolds:

Of course, we know it’s more complicated than that, I learned much later down the line. As you get older, it’s not quite as simple, but because he’s the one who physically left the habitat, he’s the enemy. So I’m dealing with that abandonment. And he was the coolest dad ever, so it also was a shock because I never saw my parents fighting and they were these loving, very affectionate, very fun and cool people who suddenly were no longer together. So my life was upside down.

Jason Reynolds:

Then what happens is I start a new school. Because my older brother took so many lumps in middle school, my mom was like, “I’m not sending you to the neighborhood school. I just can’t run the risk. Your father’s not here to keep his hand on you. The streets are calling.” All of this stuff. And so she put me in Catholic school, which, coming from my neighborhood, was a no-no. It’s like, now I’ve got to wear a uniform. I got to deal with my neighborhood friends, and people are like, “You go to that… Why you don’t go to school with us no more?” All of this kind of stuff.

Jason Reynolds:

And then I get to the Catholic school and I’m outside of my neighborhood, I’m meeting new people, but I’m smaller than everybody else because I’m younger than everybody else. And so the bullying begins and I had to deal with that. And then, on top of all of these things, and I’m dealing with the grief of my parents split so I’m not doing well in school. And the school is a bit more rigorous than I’m used to, and so I’m just struggling, I’m failing. I’m having a hard time. I’m trying to figure out how to be cool, which then causes me to posture and I’m dealing with overcompensation.

Jason Reynolds:

I should also note my older brother, who was my hero, is also suffering in life. He’s been stabbed, he’s [inaudible 00:13:19]. All kinds of… It was just one of those years, and then my grandmother dies, and so now I’m dealing with the first time I’m seeing my mother, the strongest person I know, broken. Because even in the midst of the divorce, she was able to sort of hold it together for the kids. But with the death of her mother, I think that was the final straw and it broke her down and it was the first time I heard my mother cry. And all I knew to do was to write down a few words because I had spent so many years… Actually, I had spent that year discovering rap lyrics.

Jason Reynolds:

So all this is the same thing. This is the same year. That 10th year of my life is also when I start reading rap lyrics, and that is opening my mind up to the possibilities of language, evoking feeling and emotion, and mental and emotional change. All of this is happening at the same time, and so when my mother begins to cry, I go to the one thing that’s been helping me, which are these rap lyrics. And I write down a few lines, not thinking anything of it, just thinking, “This is all I have to offer my hero.” And she prints it on the back of the funeral program. They read it at the funeral and my life changes forever.

Jason Reynolds:

The funny thing about this, though, is also because this is my 10th year, everything I do, that’s really the year that I’m pulling from. All these books, yes, the character might be 12 or 14, or 16 or 18, but I’m arrested in that 10th year. I even ask people all the time, “What would you thank your 10-year-old self for? When you look back on-

Debbie Millman:

What would you thank your 10-year-old self for? What would you say?

Jason Reynolds:

I would thank my 10-year-old self for his hopefulness. For his fortitude that he shouldn’t have had to have. For his ability to, even in the midst of all the pressures of it all, to carve out who he was and to be firm in that. I only could overcompensate for a few months before I told my mother, “I can’t. I don’t want no more name-brand clothes. It ain’t my jam. You ain’t got to buy me all of the… Let them tease me. They’ll get over it.” I was in the seventh grade, making bold decisions like, “You know what? I just got to be me, and I got to deal with me and I got to deal with what’s going on.”

Jason Reynolds:

And I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful for that kid because that’s the same kid that I am today. Deep down inside, I’m the same kid who is fighting for his own individualism, who is trying to have his own voice, be his own voice in the world, every day of my life.

Debbie Millman:

Do you remember what the words were that you wrote, the poem for your grandmother?

Jason Reynolds:

I don’t. And my mother can’t find the program, and so I don’t remember what those words were. And that’s okay because I remember how I felt to hear them out loud and then to have family members come to me and say, “They made me feel something.” And at 10 years old, to get that kind of affirmation, it creates a different kind of a serotonin that is very different. And that is what propelled me because I just wanted to feel that again. I wanted to feel useful.

Debbie Millman:

After you wrote that poem, you began to write poems for every one of your grandmother’s siblings, as they passed. You’ve talked about how listening to Queen Latifah’s Black Reign changed your life. In what way?

Jason Reynolds:

In a few ways. Number one, I was raised by a bunch of women, and Queen Latifah reminded me of the women that I was raised by in terms of, she’s a woman but there’s a moxie there. I come from razor-blade tongue women. Women who were very sharp and very strong. Women with some knuckle to them. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud of that. And it wasn’t easy coming from that family. It wasn’t always easy because, as you said, they didn’t suffer fools. These were the kinds of women who weren’t the most sensitive women because they couldn’t be. Their environment wouldn’t allow for that. Their backgrounds wouldn’t allow for that. And so, as the little boy in the household, as the little boy in the family, I was taught toughness by the women in my life.

Jason Reynolds:

Queen Latifah, she felt tough to me, and not tough in a way that was mean. Tough in a way that was protective. Tough in a way that was constitutional. And I loved it, the sound of her voice. And then, when you got down to the raps themselves, the language and the lyrics themselves, I just fell in love with what she was doing. I fell in love with her ability to tell stories, her ability to make statements, to say the thing, to draw a line in the sand using language. I just fell in love. And then to see her, and to see her with the cap to the back and the T-shirt, medallions and the key hanging from her ear, to see her on the back of a motorcycle that she was driving. I come from that kind of family. She felt familiar, and if she could do what she was doing with that language, then so could I.

Debbie Millman:

You once suggested that maybe Queen Latifah’s Ladies First and Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman are the same thing, just a generation apart. And I’m wondering if you still feel that way?

Jason Reynolds:

I do. I do. Not only do I feel that way, I feel like those two poems are in conversation. I feel like Tupac’s Dear Mama and Langston Hughes’ Mother to Son are in conversation. I feel like Nikki Giovanni’s Ego Tripping is in conversation with all of hip hop, all of hip hop, which is this sort of braggadocious… It’s this idea that, “Yo, I am it. I am…” Like, “Yes, I am ego tripping because I am it.” You know what I mean? And that is hip hop to its core. I feel like many of the stories that we read are beautiful… You take somebody like Walter Mosley or Chester Himes, and you put them up against Slick Rick, it’s the same. And it’s a music, by the way, that is rooted in necessity, in desperation, in innovation.

Jason Reynolds:

I always refer to it like hip hop is, it’s like a dyslexic version of all the other art forms, proving that to see a thing differently is a beautiful thing. That though it may complicate the way that we look at “language” or “story,” that that new complication of it creates a new beauty. It is the… You see what I’m saying? And I just-

Debbie Millman:

Absolutely.

Jason Reynolds:

… I love it. I love it. I love it. Even in the midst of its problems, I too have those problems. I am that problem as well.

Debbie Millman:

In what way?

Jason Reynolds:

For instance, I can speak out against the misogyny of hip hop, but I can only speak out against the misogyny of hip hop if I’m willing to accept that it exists inside of me.

Debbie Millman:

Okay. I understand. Yeah.

Jason Reynolds:

Right? I am anti-misogyny, but it does not mean… it is foolish for me to believe that misogyny doesn’t exist in my bones, that it isn’t in my psyche, even if I don’t want it to be there. And I work very hard to keep it down and to fight against it and to deconstruct it, but the only way we could do that is if we admit that the world in which I was raised in, that misogyny was birthed in me the moment I was birthed in this country and the environments in which I was raised in.

Debbie Millman:

Well, it’s the way that we’re socialized, absolutely. I think Roxanne talks about that in Bad Feminists. That’s what makes her, so to speak, a bad feminist, liking rap music and-

Jason Reynolds:

Exactly.

Debbie Millman:

… enjoying the lyrics while knowing that they are misogynistic or any number of things.

Jason Reynolds:

Exactly.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah.

Jason Reynolds:

So if I know that, then I can critique this music, but I also can acknowledge that the complexity of the music in the midst of all of these, the goods and the bads, are the same complexities that exist in me. The goods and the bad, it’s all there. And that I can critique this music, that I can hate portions of it or dislike portions of it, just like I dislike portions of me. And if I’m not willing to kill me or dismiss me or put me on the shelf, then I’m also not willing to dismiss all this music that has saved so many lives, despite its complicated nature, is all I’m saying.

Debbie Millman:

Absolutely. How did rap influence your own writing?

Jason Reynolds:

Rhythm. My work is churning. At least I want it to be. There’s a rhythm there. James Brown always said, to him, that every instrument was a drum, which is the reason why everything in his band sounded percussive, and that’s how the funk was born. To me, everything is a poem, which means that everything has meter and rhythm, everything. Everything I write, if it’s an essay, it’s a poem. If it’s a novel, it’s a poem. For me, everything is poetry, which means everything has rhythm and meter. And that comes from what I learned growing up in rap music, that everything has this… there got to be a little base there, there had to be something to push it. You’re supposed to feel that thing in your stomach. That is how I want my work to feel and that is what I… It is to be read aloud, as far as I’m concerned. You know how we talk about Shakespeare? We’re like, “Shakespeare is to be seen.” For me, I feel like my work is to be read aloud.

Debbie Millman:

In the last couple of weeks, as I have been researching your history and reading your work, I’ve spent a lot of time saying, “Wait, Roxanne, you have to hear this. You have to hear this.” And you could ask her about that because I would literally… She’d be writing or she’d be doing something and I’d run into the room, I’m like, “Listen to this.”

Jason Reynolds:

I appreciate that. Thank you.

Debbie Millman:

You had several teachers that made a big difference in your life, and I’d like to talk with you about them. There are two in particular, Ms. Blaufuss. She was a teacher you initially hated. So why did you hate her? And then, how did that relationship transform over the time that you were taught by her?

Jason Reynolds:

I hated Ms. Blaufuss because I was 13, and Ms. Blaufuss was mean. I didn’t like Ms. Blaufuss because Ms. Blaufuss was the first teacher that, and at least in high school, that was willing to hold us accountable. And when you’re 13 years old, the one thing you don’t want is to be held accountable, and the one thing that you want more than anything is to be held accountable. This is sort of the tricky part about being an early teenager, and Ms. Blaufuss was that kind of person. She wanted to make sure she set the standard and the tone of what this class was going to be, and to do that she just wasn’t willing to deal with none of the nonsense. But all we wanted to do was exude nonsense. So the first day of class, I come home and I’m like, “Ma, you got to get me out of there. You got to free me from Ms. Blaufuss. I have got to get out of there,” because I already knew she was going to be tough on all of us.

Jason Reynolds:

My mother in her infinite wisdom was like, “Jason, it’s the first day of class. It is impossible for you to know what this is going to be.” And of course, I’m a precocious kid and I’m like, “You taught me to trust my gut. My gut is telling me Ms. Blaufuss ain’t the one.” And it turned out that Ms. Blaufuss was one of the greatest gifts I would ever have as a teacher because she was the first person to acknowledge my ability. She was the one, the first person, outside of my mother. To ever say to me, “You can write.” And I wasn’t doing that well in her class. That’s the thing about it. That’s what I always…

Jason Reynolds:

And Ms. Blaufuss is my friend. Ms. Blaufuss lived down the street from me. We talk periodically and it’s always good to see her, but that’s the one thing about her that I’ll always respect, is that Ms. Blaufuss… I wasn’t doing that well in her class, but she was able to give me constructive criticism and to acknowledge my abilities, even if she couldn’t give me an A. It was like, “Look, you won’t follow directions,” or, “You didn’t do the assignment, but I can acknowledge the fact that your technical ability, there’s something happening, there’s something there. And your creativity, there’s something happening.”

Jason Reynolds:

As a matter of fact, she even started a creative writing class and she took eight students, handpicked. And that was when I started to learn form and all the variations of poetry. I started to read things that I had never read before, things that I didn’t think interest me. She even told my mom, “Hey, if he goes to college, try to find a school with a good writing program. He’s got the thing.” I’ll always be grateful for her, yeah. And for all of you listening, if you read the Spider-Man book, if you read Miles Morales, she is in the book. She is the teacher in that book and-

Debbie Millman:

And you use her name, Ms. Blaufuss.

Jason Reynolds:

I use her name. I use her name because I wanted to pay homage to a woman that, without her, I don’t know if this would’ve happened because you just need one person to believe. One person outside of your family to believe that there is a there, there.

Debbie Millman:

Absolutely. Yeah. I had a teacher like that in college, changed my life. First person that ever made me feel like I was smart.

Jason Reynolds:

It’ll do it, right? You only need one.

Debbie Millman:

Well, the other teacher I want to talk with you about is Mr. Williams, who you described in the following way. “He was skinny, stark white. He had a bowl haircut. He wore khakis, a pair of Jordans or high-top Nikes. He had his shirt tucked in and he wore weird wool ties with a blunt bottom.” You stated that everybody hated him, but he did that intentionally. Why did he do that intentionally?

Jason Reynolds:

Mr. Williams. one of the most peculiar geniuses I’ve ever known. He did that because he wanted to set you up. He wanted to teach what happens when you have preconceived notions and expectations about people, then you meet them and realize that you never really know a person until you do. And so he would do things to… If you were a freshman, sophomore or junior, every time he saw you, he would pick on you, he would poke at you, he would give you detentions.

Jason Reynolds:

Mind you, this is a person who… I look back now and I realize that he was always aware that none of this actually matters. Me giving you detentions is not going to affect your life. It’s interesting, right? Because we always had this idea like, “What about my permanent record?” What permanent record? No one’s ever shown me. Where are these records, that our whole lives we’ve been terrified of? Like, “Oh no, it’s going to go on your permanent record.”

Jason Reynolds:

Mr. Williams was fully aware that none of these detentions meant anything, and so he would dole them out. He just doled them out. You go into detention, you’re late. He would make you late. He would do things like if you had a book, if you were taking books out of your locker, he would run up to you and he would push the book all the way to the other end of the hallway so you had to be late, and then he would give you an detention, and then we would all be upset.

Debbie Millman:

Why? Why did he do that?

Jason Reynolds:

So that when you finally got into his class, when you were a senior and you had to take his class… For the most part, all of us had to take his class. It was called global studies. You would walk into that class angry and upset and annoyed, and then he could just slap you in the face with all this love. It was the biggest bait and switch ever. Because all he really wanted to do was get you real angry with him so that when you came to his class, it would be such a stark difference when you got to actually know him. It was all a set… But that’s how he was. It was all about, how can I teach you? Because that’s really how it goes. That’s what happened with me and Ms. Blaufuss.

Jason Reynolds:

He was really teaching us, “This is how life is. There are people who antagonize you. But when you get to know them a little better, oftentimes, they’re actually okay. They’re still lovable, and sometimes they even love you.” Parents do this, right? Like yo, you’re mad at your parents because they’re doing things that you feel like are unfair. And then you get a little closer or you get a little older, and you realize that, yeah, some of that stuff felt unfair but nobody loved you like them. Nobody taught you about the world like they were going to teach you about the world.

Jason Reynolds:

And on top of all of that, he just had a strange sense of humor. He just honestly was also just a troll. He just was the guy who was like, this is all fun and games for him because he knew that he was the best teacher in the school. He knew that. It was kind of like, “This is all fun and games, and when you get here, you’ll realize. It’s fine. It’s fine.” He was a teacher that, the first day of class, the first thing you learn, he writes on the board, ethnocentricity. That’s his class number one. And we go through the definition of ethnocentricity. Imagine that. All our school time we are learning about math and science, and then we get to his class and we learn about what it is to be human.

Debbie Millman:

One of the stories that I found in my research was you talking about the fish story from that class.

Jason Reynolds:

Yeah, of course.

Debbie Millman:

And I cannot stop thinking about it. I cannot stop thinking about that story. If you can share that, I’d really appreciate it. I think it will impact our listeners in the same way that it’s impacted me.

Jason Reynolds:

Of course. One day, we came to class and Mr. Williams had, he had a tropical fish in a bag, and he said, “This is going to be the class pet.” He had an aquarium set up. He said, “This is going to be a class pet,” but we’re all seniors. And so, obviously, as seniors, you’re like, “What are we… We’re too old for this.” But he’s like, “No, no, no. This is a class pet. Don’t worry about it. It’s going to be great. I want you all to feed it when you come to class every day. You feed it. I want you all to name it, and this is going to be the class mascot.”

Jason Reynolds:

And so, “Okay, we’ll go along with it.” And he said, “The only rule is nobody can put your hands in the tank. Nobody can touch the fish. No fingers can be on the fish. I know how you all are. No playing around. No jokes, no pranks. Do not touch the fish by any means, no matter what. No means should you ever touch this fish. And if you do, this is a non-negotiable. If you do, you’ll be suspended.” “Okay, Mr. Williams, that’s fine. Nobody wants to touch the fish.” A week or two later, some time passes and we come to class, and Mr. Williams walks over to the fish tank, and he takes the fish out of the tank and he puts it on the floor. And everybody jumps up and we gather around, and we’re mortified. Everyone is mortified and confused. We’re like, “What is he… What is happening right now?” And he just is watching and waiting as the fish flops around and is gasping for breath.

Jason Reynolds:

And finally, two young ladies run over and they grab that fish. They pick it up and they sort of juggle it back into the tank, and the fish survives and we’re all like, “Whew, that was weird and close, and what are you doing, Mr. Williams?” And Mr. Williams very calmly says, “Young ladies, please get your bags and head on down to the principal’s office. You are suspended.” And of course, they’re losing their minds and they’re like, “Are you kidding? What are you saying? This isn’t… What are you doing?” And he’s like, “I know you’re upset. I know you’re upset, but please, please exit the room. I get it. You’re mad. But please do as I ask and go down to the principal’s office and call your parents, and you are suspended.”

Jason Reynolds:

And as they’re leaving the room, he pokes his head out and he says, “But hold your heads up because you did the right thing, but sometimes doing the right thing has consequences.” There were two things I learned that day. One, I had to sit there for the rest of the day in my cowardice. I had to stew in my cowardice that I didn’t have the chutzpah to get up and save that fish, though everything in me was telling me to. And two, I learned that it is always women.

Debbie Millman:

Really?

Jason Reynolds:

It is always women who saved the fish in our everyday lives. Historically, we can run through every social movement, we can run through what’s happening right now in today’s time. It’s always women who make the sacrifice, even if they don’t get the credit for it. Even if we have male figureheads who get gunned down, we know that. But there are women who are behind those people, turning those wheels. There are women who are part of the planning committees. There are women who are laying their bodies down, who are sacrificing time with their children. There are always women who save the fish and I’ll never ever forget it. And every day of my life, I wake up and I choose to save that fish. Every day from there for… I think about that, probably, twice a week. Twice a week.

Jason Reynolds:

As a matter of fact, Mr. Williams, who is still a very, very good friend of mine… We are very close and recently, I was hanging… I was at his beach house and we were chatting, and he said he stopped doing the fish experiment maybe five years before he retired, because there was one student who said, “This is animal cruelty.” She was correct, and so he cut it out. But he said that, before he retired, someone came to visit him from 20 years prior or 30 years prior, and she said, “I want to show you something.” She pulled out a little slip and it was the suspension referral. And she said, “I saved the fish and I never forgot. I still have the suspension.” Imagine that all these years later, she held on to… It was life-changing for hundreds of thousands of students over the years.

Jason Reynolds:

And I tell that story as often as possible because I hope it’ll be life-changing for young people and for adults. Now there’s a hashtag sometimes I see pop up on Twitter. It’ll say, “Save the fish.” It’s a thing. Like, “Save the fish.”

Debbie Millman:

Yeah.

Jason Reynolds:

You know? Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

When you were 16 years old, you self-published your first book and you began selling it out of the trunk of your mother’s car. Was that the book, Let Me Speak?

Jason Reynolds:

That was, and it’s so weird that you know this. I feel like…

Debbie Millman:

Well, it wasn’t that hard to find. Well, tell us what the book was about, and how did you make copies of it and how did you go about selling it?

Jason Reynolds:

Back then, it was different. I was 15 when I started it, 16 when it came… when I was selling it. It goes back to my mother. I could do anything. There was nothing in me that ever felt like I couldn’t just make what I wanted to make, or do what I wanted to do, or go where I wanted to go, or say what I wanted to say. I just never had any of that, any of those hangups. So I remember telling my mom, “Yo, I want to make a book. I’m going to publish a book.”

Jason Reynolds:

And so, at that point, I was all over the East Coast as a 16-year-old. This is when spoken word was becoming… It was still an underground thing. It hadn’t really exploded yet. We’re talking about ’98, ’99 around that time, and so it’s about to explode. It’s about to explode. It’s still a thing that everybody’s doing, but it hasn’t hit the mainstream. It’s a bunch of just young, artsy, Bohemian kids getting together at grimy, open mics and just doing their thing. Everyone has on brown and green and smells like patchouli and then… That was sort of the vibe, and I was one of the young people in that scene.

Jason Reynolds:

And so I would be in Philly and I would be in DC, and I would be in New York, and I would be in Richmond, as a 16-year-old driving my mom’s car, just getting busy. This is back where you can get a license at 16, obviously. And I’m just getting busy doing my thing because I knew who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.

Jason Reynolds:

And I realized that everywhere I went, they were all selling books. They were all in their twenties and thirties, they’re all selling books. And so I’m like, “I got to make a book too.” I meet this woman in Baltimore, a good friend of mine, still Myisha Cherry, who, at the time, is 21. And she’s like, “Yo, I started a publishing company and I’m going to publish just our friends and Myisha was the one who was like, “I want to make this book with you. Let’s do it.” And really, it was a vanity press. Really, what that meant was Myisha was going to format it and put it into files, and then I was going to pay for it to be printed out. She was going to take care of the [inaudible 00:36:32].

Debbie Millman:

But that’s pretty ambitious for a 15-year-old, a publishing company.

Jason Reynolds:

Absolutely.

Debbie Millman:

You’re in print.

Jason Reynolds:

Yeah. That’s what it was. And I was like, “Let’s do it.” And so we did that. I worked, I had a summer job. I remember, I think it cost me $500 to print 1,000 books, or 500 books or something like that.

Debbie Millman:

Were they Xeroxed and stapled, or did you have them bound?

Jason Reynolds:

No, this was like a real deal. We found a printer out of Florida called White Hall Publishing or something like that. They’re out of business now. And they were just a family business that did actual bound books. I paid them $500. They sent me 1,000 books and I sold them out of the trunk of my mom’s car, and that’s how I started to make money. And I did that a few times over. That was the beginning of my life as a bookmaker.

Debbie Millman:

It’s incredible that you did that. Do you still have copies of this?

Jason Reynolds:

I do. My mom has three or four. I have one around the house somewhere. My mom has one of the poems on the wall in the house because she’s my mom. I try not to look at it. It’s juvenilia. It’s hard to read some of that stuff.

Debbie Millman:

But it’s evidence. It’s evidence of your being 15 and the ambition to publish and create this. It’s extraordinary.

Jason Reynolds:

I think it’s the first brick in whatever castle I’m building, and I look at it as, this is the sign of a kid hungry for life. Somebody with a lot of grit, a lot of persistence. Nobody was going to tell that kid that he couldn’t do anything.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. I believe you self-published two books.

Jason Reynolds:

Three books.

Debbie Millman:

Three books. Okay. You went to the University of Maryland, and yet, you almost failed out of college in your freshman year.

Jason Reynolds:

I did. I did. It’s tricky. I come out of high school, even with those great teachers, Ms. Blaufuss and Mr. Williams, but I wasn’t prepared for college. I’m 16 years old.

Debbie Millman:

That’s young.

Jason Reynolds:

Yeah. I’m not quite firm in my education. I don’t really know too much because I wasn’t that great of a high school student. It’s not like I was a straight-A kid or anything like that. I wasn’t in an honor society or any of that kind of stuff. I was a-

Debbie Millman:

But you were a publisher.

Jason Reynolds:

Yeah. I was doing that part, but I was a get-by kind of kid when it came to school. And I get to college and the first class is English 101 and I bomb it. I fail it terribly. I fail it a few times. Not only am I failing English, but I’m failing math, and I’m in remedial. I’m in pre-remedial, so I’m in… This isn’t math 101, this is like the math you have to take before you get to math 101. And I’m failing that too. And so it was clear after my first semester that college was going to be a struggle for me, that I was in over my head, that I was… Yeah, I wasn’t prepared for this, for whatever that world was. That kind of academic world, I just wasn’t ready for it.

Jason Reynolds:

But what I was ready for was the social element. I was ready to attack the world and attack that bubble, this sort of bubbled space, this bubbled environment where I could literally build an ecosystem. That made more sense to me than classwork. That made more sense to me than tests and examinations or transcripts. I understood that all of the currency was outside of the classroom in a contained ecosystem that I could scrap my way to the top of whatever the hierarchy was, using this grit that caused me to make these books or run up and down the East Coast as a child, reciting poems in rooms full of 30-year-olds. Whatever that was, it was going to be exacerbated and pushed to the extreme on that college campus, and that’s what I really used college for.

Debbie Millman:

You also finally discovered reading because, up until that point in your life, you hadn’t… Though you self-published three of your own books, you hadn’t actually ever read a book from beginning to end. And I believe it was when you were 17, you finally did, and it was Richard Wright’s landmark 1945 novel Black Boy, about a boy growing up in the American south. I think it feels somewhat obvious as to what compelled you to finish it. What inspired you to start it?

Jason Reynolds:

Just a teacher, a professor saying that I needed to get my life together, and that reading was more valuable and more important than numerical scores and grades, even though that’s really all I thought reading was about because that’s really what reading was about. That’s the problem with the academy, right? The tricky part about education in America is that everything is a means to an end.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. That’s what happens when you grade people.

Jason Reynolds:

That’s it. Everything is a means to an end, and so for me, reading was a means to an end. This teacher, though, he explained to me that reading was far more than that. That reading was one of the only things in the world that could actually strengthen the mind, that it could expose and open a human being up to things that they’d never be exposed and open to simply by reading these words on the page. That it could teach one persistence and discipline. That it could expand vocabulary, and the expansion of that vocabulary meant the expansion of interpersonal communication skills, and your expansion of interpersonal communication skills meant the divestment from violence.

Jason Reynolds:

These simple equations when you really put it together. And that reading also could teach one how to listen better and how to listen better to themselves, how to hear their own voices clearly. And it could stoke the imagination. All of this, it has nothing to do with grades. It should be criminal, the way reading has been whittled and distilled, hyper-distilled down to a letter grade for young people.

Debbie Millman:

Absolutely. I run a graduate program at the School of Visual Arts and I won’t give grades. It’s pass or fail. And when people ask for feedback, I’m like, “Don’t you know how you’re doing?”

Jason Reynolds:

Exactly. Don’t you know how you’re doing? This is… We’re talking about one of the greatest forms of alchemy to ever exist in the world, when it comes to… That’s what you’re reading. You’re reading someone else’s alchemy. This is like the greatest series of secret codes ever, and we treat it like homework.

Jason Reynolds:

That was where the shift came and that was, and that’s the thing that I’ve held onto more than anything. And in college is that, gosh, man, that reading and writing is basically acknowledging the architecture of the world.

Debbie Millman:

Absolutely. You met Jason Griffin at college. He was your roommate and you’ve been friends ever since. You’ve written two books together. What was that first meeting like? I could only imagine the alchemy that occurred in that room.

Jason Reynolds:

Yeah. Yeah. It was… So he and I… That third self-published book, it was with him. So that’s the third book that, no one really knows about that one.

Debbie Millman:

Oh, that’s the book Self.

Jason Reynolds:

That’s the book. Well, of course, you know about it because clearly you’ve combed my life.

Debbie Millman:

Well, I like to understand the arc so that I could understand the sort of… I don’t know, DNA of a person’s experience.

Jason Reynolds:

No, no.

Debbie Millman:

And then really talk about.

Jason Reynolds:

I’m so impressed. I should have known this was going to happen. I’ve listened to this show for years. But it’s different when it’s you. It’s like, “What? But Jason and I… I don’t believe in soulmates in a singular sense. I do believe in soul mates, though, pluralized. The idea that there are many people who are soul mates in your life and that they’re not always romantic partners. Jason is one of my soulmates, and that became a very clear thing the day we met, the moment we met.

Jason Reynolds:

I think I had won a talent show. The University of Maryland, which is where we went, they had this talent show and I won the talent show. Just got to campus. This is freshman year, first semester. This is my coming-out party. Like I’m here, I’ve been working on this, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m pretty sharp. I’m ready to rock. I get on the stage and I recite my poem and this poem wins the talent show, which never happens back then. Nowadays, poetry, spoken word and all of that is a very different thing. Back then, it was still like, “What? If you ain’t a singer, you ain’t winning no talent show.”

Jason Reynolds:

And so I win this talent show but I have no friends, so I go to the dining hall. And I’m a pretty, self-contained kind of guy anyway, in general, and I’m going to have dinner alone. I’m just going to sit and have some chicken fingers and decompress after winning a talent show, and he’s in there with all these people gathered around him and he’s holding court, because that’s the kind of person he… This opening scene of our relationship is literally who we have always been. If you ever see me in public, I’m usually alone. If you ever see me at a party, I’m talking to one person at a time, I’m just a really kind of… I’m shy. I’m naturally shy. I’m naturally introverted. Jason is the exact opposite. He’s always going to be… He’s the life of the party. He’s Mr. Personality. He’s very gregarious.

Jason Reynolds:

So he’s doing his thing, and everybody’s laughing and he’s just going for it, and I’m just eating my food on the other side of the room. He sees me and he comes over, and he says, “Yo, aren’t you the dude who just won the talent show?” For those of you who don’t know what Jason looks like, this is a white boy. He’s your Irishman, for sure. White boy, bright red… This time, I mean bright red hair. And he’s always, at least back then, he’s super well dressed and very charismatic. And he’s like, “Yo, you just won the talent show.” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah.” At the time I had on one of these crocheted hats that I’d been making since I was a kid. And he’s like, “Yo, I like that hat man.” And I was like, “Oh word. I made this.”

Jason Reynolds:

And in that moment, he realizes, “What?” So he sits down, leaves his crowd of friends. He sits down and we talk for hours, and hours and hours, and hours and hours. And the following year, he was like, “Yo, I got seniority. I got a dorm room with an air conditioner. I know you living in the hot building. You want to just move in with me?” And I said, “Of course,” and that was the beginning of a friendship and a business partnership, a creative partnership, a brotherhood. My life changed forever the day I met Jason Griffin, for sure.

Debbie Millman:

You initially made your first book, which combined your words with his illustrations, and used your own money, maxed out your credit cards to the tune of $30,000 to get the books printed. Why did you feel like you had to do that to get a book deal, or did you do that in lieu of getting a book deal? You ultimately got a book deal together, but what provoked you to self-publish the book at that time?

Jason Reynolds:

This is before the internet was the internet. Publishing has always been super mysterious because no one has ever had any access to it, so books just seem to exist. It’s like you don’t… Unless, a writer, which none of us did, or a publisher, which none of us did, or an editor, which none of us did, you don’t really know how books are made. You do now because we had the internet. But this is back before everything was Google-able. Not everybody even had a website. This is before social media. Facebook didn’t even exist. This is before the iPhone. This is-

Debbie Millman:

Before my MySpace.

Jason Reynolds:

Exactly. MySpace was new and was all very personal. Nobody was using it for… Businesses didn’t have MySpace. Publishing companies didn’t have MySpace accounts. Publishing companies have Instagrams. You see what I’m saying? Now.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. Yeah.

Jason Reynolds:

Right. But back then, it was walled off in a certain way. And so we thought what we were doing was publishing a book. We thought this was what it was and so we… And we knew that what we were making was so strange and it was sort of ambitious, and we were like, “Nobody’s going to be able to do it like we’re going to do it.” Because we’re at that age where… That 19, 20, 21 age is the perfect amount of ego because it’s just enough ego for you to believe that everything you make is genius. And the truth is it’s usually not genius, but there is always something ingenious in it. And the moxie and the gumption to be like, “We going to do whatever we want to do because we are geniuses” is what you need to get to wherever you going. You got to have some of that.

Jason Reynolds:

And that’s just who we were. And Jason refused… Because he’s an artist, he’s an artist-artist. He refused to compromise on the quality of his art. I didn’t care about where the words went, what kind of paper they were on or, but Jason was like, “Nah, nah, nah. It needs to be silk pages. The saturation of the ink needs to be this, this and this.” And so we just were very particular about making a beautiful thing and not skimping on ourselves. And I’m a guy who was already making books so I understood that. I’m like, “Look, okay. Let’s make a thing that we can be proud of.” Nobody would print it so we ended up having to go with a printer that used to print for the Smithsonian. And they’re like, “Oh, we can do it. We can handle it.” But it would cost us $30,000.

Debbie Millman:

Oh my god.

Jason Reynolds:

So we just did it.

Debbie Millman:

Oh my god.

Jason Reynolds:

And that was it. That was it. And the whole book is about two young men, and both of us had gone through our first heartbreaks. And we were writing about self forgiveness and self acceptance, and self awareness and self discipline and self… That’s why the book is called Self. And we modeled it after an album. So there’s 16 pieces in that book, and then there’s 16 poems and pieces of art. And then there’s this other section where we give a little bit of context about the pieces, and then there’s this back section where it’s the making of the book. And we did all of this because of our obsession with rap music and albums, and so we did it as if it were liner notes. And that’s what it is.

Debbie Millman:

Well, the book got you an agent.

Jason Reynolds:

It did.

Debbie Millman:

That agent found you an editor at Harper Collins and they contracted with you to make a new book. You titled it, My Name is Jason. Mine Too. You were 21 years old. What were your expectations at that point for this new book?

Jason Reynolds:

Well, the first thing I’d say is, all we know is the stories of the music industry. Like I said, no one knows anything about the literary industry, especially if you’re coming from where we coming from. And so the first thing we do when we go into the meeting with the publisher, we go to the meeting with our guards up. Mind you, we haven’t eaten a decent meal in two years, probably. And we go to… Well, a year. A year, actually. About a year. And we go into this place, this fancy Chinese restaurant in the middle of Manhattan, and she says to us, “Order anything you want.” And we’re so nervous because we she can’t really mean that. Our clothes are all oversized because we’ve lost so much weight struggling in New York City. And she’s like, “No, no, guys. Really, order anything. It’s on the publishing company.”

Jason Reynolds:

So this is the first thing. And we’re like, “What?” So we start to eat everything. But we have our guards up because we think that the literary industry is going to be like the music industry and they’re going to try to change us. So we’re like, “Whatever you’re going to say, just don’t try to change us.” And the first thing, this editor, Joanna Kotler is her name. The first thing she says is, “The first thing I want you all to know is that I don’t want to change you. I just want teach you how to make a book that actually works. I want to teach you how to take this raw talent, this raw vision you have and help you shape it and mold it into a sellable thing.”

Jason Reynolds:

And at that point, I don’t know what to expect because this is all brand new. I’ve been doing this on my own for so long and he had been doing it on his own for so long that we didn’t know what this meant, except for the fact that we were supposed to be rich. We were very wrong about that part. But for the next three years, this woman took us under her wing and she taught us how to make a book, how to really make a book. She taught me narrative arc. She taught me how to write a story. This is all happening in the making of My Name is Jason. Mine Too. I’ll never be able to repay her for that, even though that book did not sell.

Jason Reynolds:

Came out and nobody was interested in it. And you know, we look back now and we think it may have been a little too soon, a little early, a little before its time, but it got us in the game. It got me in the game and it started this career. It wasn’t that easy. It wasn’t that simple. But it was the beginning of what would become my career.

Debbie Millman:

You said that the book may have sold six copies and that your mom bought four. Hopefully, now, after all these years, people can still buy it. At that point, you moved back to DC. You took various jobs. You became a stock boy at Lord & Taylor. You worked for your dad. For a time, you were living in your car. You decided that you were going to quit writing. Your friend Christopher Myers, who is also an author and an illustrator, talked you out of it by giving you some writing advice that you said changed everything. What did he tell you?

Jason Reynolds:

Well, first, let me say that I was living in my car. Well, I slept in the car for a night or two. Because there’s a lot of people who are really unhoused and I don’t want to teeth off their story, but I did experience that and it was a bummer.

Jason Reynolds:

That being said, I was working in a retail store, downtown New York City. My buddy Christopher Myers, who I’d known since I was 21. He was my first mentor in this industry. As a kid, he took me under his wing, showed me the ropes. His father was the great Walter Dean Myers, who… Basically, I don’t get to be here if it wasn’t for him, nor does the great Jacqueline Woodson get to be here, nor does a lot of us who stand on the shoulders of Walter, who made space for stories about Black children. Specifically, Black children from urban environments. It was amazing.

Jason Reynolds:

So Chris comes and he’s like, “Look, man, I want you to try to write one more book.” I’d quit writing. I was so frustrated and I felt like a failure, and I had a job that I liked. It’s funny how that happens. I got this gig selling clothes, loved it. And for people-

Debbie Millman:

Is that when you were at Rag & Bone?

Jason Reynolds:

At Rag & Bone. And for people who, if you don’t live in… Let’s say you don’t live in New York City or in LA, it might sound really wild for a person to be like, “Yeah, I sold these clothes and I loved it.” But in those major cities, that’s a real career. I made a ton of money. It was a fun gig. I love the job, and there are people who are 40 and 50 years old and it’s no sweat. I take my hat off to those folks because it’s a good job. I had insurance. I had all kind of stuff. Shout out to the retail workers, shout out to the service workers in general, the waiters, anybody working customer service. We hold our heads high.

Jason Reynolds:

And he came in and he asked me to write one more book because his father was getting old. Walter was getting old and he said, “Look, man, somebody got to carry that mantle. Somebody got to pick that up. Who’s going to write the stories about the kids who grew up like us? The kids who are experiencing what we experienced? The kids who just want to be seen as human? The kids who have taken a few lumps? The kids who have an infectious laughter? Who’s going to tell those stories?” And he said, “But do it your way.” Mind you, I tried to get into grad school three times. I tried to get into The New School, and I’m going to say their names because I like to make sure I poke them every chance I get. I tried to get into The New School twice, I tried to get into Penn State and they kept rejecting me, rejecting me.

Jason Reynolds:

And this is after I was published, and I’m being rejected, rejected and rejected. I’m kind of at a loss here and I’m like, “I’m just going to work retail.” And he says, “Man, just write a story your own way. Your voice, your style. Throw out the rules, man. Just do your thing.” And so I scribbled in the notepad this story about my older brother and I growing up and all of the silly things we got into, and it became this book When I Was the Greatest. And that was the beginning of my life changing into something I don’t know if I ever could have imagined.

Debbie Millman:

Well, you’ve since published 15 more books, including Ghost, which was a National Book Award finalist, which I want to talk to you about because that book had a profound impact on me. You’ve won the Kirkus Prize, the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work. The Schneider Family Book Award, the Newberry Honor, a Printz Honor, a Carnegie Medal, and in 2020 you were named the Library Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, which is a position you still hold today. Congratulations. Congratulations.

Jason Reynolds:

Oh, thank you. Thank you for that. I appreciate it.

Debbie Millman:

When I Was the Greatest Came out in 2014, and the book’s teenage narrator Ali has an estranged father who cycled in and out of jail. And in your 2016 book Ghost, which is the first book in the four-part Track Series, Castle Crenshaw’s father tries to kill him and his mother, and then is also in jail. You’ve stated that in all of your novels, you borrow liberally from reality, fictionalizing your own life and the lives of friends and family. And I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about the reason you have these two really important figures in these books that both have fathers in jail.

Jason Reynolds:

First, let me say that Ghost is rooted in a real story that really happened to my dear friend, Matt Carter, who lived down the street from me. His father tried to shoot him. That’s a real thing. Well, his mother’s boyfriend tried to shoot him, actually. And I think, those two characters in particular, I’ve written them that way not actually because of the incarceration but more so, I’m always interested in wrestling with the dynamics of family because of my own family and because of my own father, who was this incredible guy that I had a contentious relationship with for, gosh, 15 years of my life, only to fix it before he passed on.

Jason Reynolds:

And the reason I think about him often, and I write about these sorts of family dynamics is because there was never a moment in my life where I wasn’t sure that my father loved me. So no matter what our family dynamic was and no matter what was happening with the two of us, I knew my father loved me. He made that very clear. And I think when it comes to, specifically, Black families, but all families that have shifting dynamic, I think what happens is we throw around this weird language, like broken home. We say, “Oh, you come from a broken home,” and I don’t like that because a broken home connotes that it makes broken people. I’m not a broken person, nor were my parents. It was just a different kind of family, and difference is okay. Just because your father and mother aren’t together does not mean your father is absent from your life, and I think that’s what I’m always wrestling with.

Jason Reynolds:

Whereas in Ghost’s situation, his father did do a terrible thing and then was absent from his life. But the way Ghost talks about him, it’s layered. Because ghost isn’t upset that… He doesn’t know how to feel because he misses his father. He understands that, yes, this terrible thing happened but also this is still the man I love. This is still my father, and I understand that my father may be a complicated person and may have some things that he has to sort out, and that I’m angry about the fact that my father did this terrible thing, but it does not strip me of the truth that my father is my father and I do love my father regardless of this particular moment. And that’s a really, really, really hard knot to undo, but that is the knot of our lives.

Debbie Millman:

Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely. Talk about ghosts, you have this character, this extraordinary character Castle Crenshaw, whose whose nickname is Ghost and I know you grew up with a lot of nicknames. In Long Way Down, the book is populated with ghosts. So talk about the importance of the ghost in your work.

Jason Reynolds:

I believe that we are all haunted, and when I say that, I think people’s knee-jerk reaction is to believe that we’re haunted by things that have died or people that have died. The idea of ghosts being things that show up at the foot of your bed, hazy and translucent. No. What I’m saying is, we’re all being haunted by everyone who’s ever taught us anything. We’re being haunted by our experiences. We’re being haunted by our religious beliefs. We’re being haunted by every breakup. We’re being haunted by every marriage. We’re being haunted by the good things and the bad things. To be haunted isn’t always a negative thing. What I’m saying is, to you, everywhere I go, I hear the voices of everyone who I’ve ever interacted with in my ear. Every time I’m going to make a bad decision, I can hear my mother, who is still alive, in my ear saying, “Now, you know better. Now, take it easy. Get a grip.”

Jason Reynolds:

I believe that. I believe that. We just call it conscience. We just call it conscience. But our consciousness are built by our experiences and the people in our lives, which means that all of us are technically being haunted all the time, and that’s the reason why I use Ghost or I use… In Ghost, the other thing about the ghost thing, especially in Ghost the book and in Long Way Down, is that if we were to… Okay, so there’s one part about it that’s about conscience. And it’s the other part about it that’s like, there are so many things and so many people in our lives that are there and not. That are that we can see and don’t see. That we believe are in the room but aren’t in the room, whether it be fathers and that complicated relationship with our fathers, whether it be being Black in America. I am always in every room and yet never in the room.

Jason Reynolds:

We see this again in Spider-Man and my version of Miles Maroles. We see this again in so many of my books, where it’s like the kid is there and yet no one seems to see. We see this in The Boy in the Black Suit. You know what I mean? This is something that I’m always grappling with. What does it mean to be there? And you know people know you are there, but they can’t see you for some reason, or to feel something.

Debbie Millman:

Where they see through you.

Jason Reynolds:

Or they see through you. Exactly, exactly. Right. And so the ghostliness of Black life is a very real thing. Those are the two prongs that I’m always bumping together to make a lot of my books, to make a lot of my books.

Debbie Millman:

I think that the whole notion of your books being considered YA books is a bit of a misnomer. I think that they’re YA books disguised as adult books, because having read most of your books at this point, I would say that they have impacted me more than many of the so-called adult books that I’ve read. I’ve only actually ever cried at the end of three books, like really wept. And I cry a lot. I cry at movies. But in terms of books, I’ve cried at the end of three books. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, wept, wept. Middlesex, and now Ghost. Wept.

Jason Reynolds:

Oh, thank you. Thank you.

Debbie Millman:

Wept. Wept. Came into the den, Roxanne’s like, “Oh my god, what happened?” I’m like, “I finished Ghost.” And she’s like, “Oh, honey.” Castle is the hero of Ghost, but you never give him the burden of being heroic.

Jason Reynolds:

No.

Debbie Millman:

Unlike so many of the popular tropes of our time. And in fact, you’ve written that in Ghost, you hope you show that you can’t run away from who you are, but what you can do is run towards who you want to be.

Jason Reynolds:

Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

Talk about this intentional humanness of your characters, if you can.

Jason Reynolds:

Well, I’m so glad you brought up this idea around heroism. I don’t believe in that. I try not to ever write heroes and villains because I just don’t believe in heroes and villains. I believe in journey folk. That we’re all just sort of on the journey, you know what I mean? And whether one is heroic or villainous is contextualized by whatever particular part of the journey that they’re on, but that swings and changes.

Jason Reynolds:

Ghost does a lot of things that some people would look down on, and then he does other things that some people would applaud him for, and that’s just what it is to be a person. And all I ever want to do in my books is just show, for me, specifically, Black children as human beings, as people. And that’s all he is, a person with a heart, and fear, and jokes, and ambition, and anger and doubt. He’s just a person. And it’s also the reason why we don’t know what happens at the end of that story because it doesn’t actually matter. Because it doesn’t actually… I mean, hasn’t he already won?

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. Your endings destroy me, Jason. I got to the end of the book, and I read it on Kindle. I like to read, when I’m reading for the show, on Kindle because then I can highlight and transcribe very easily. I don’t have to be typing at all and not be able to concentrate. And because you could always see where you are in the book, I didn’t realize that there was all the acknowledgements and then there was book club notes. So I got to that “boom!” and I turned the page and I’m like, “Wait, what?” And then I just start weeping, weeping because of how much you have to decide for yourself how that story ends. And it is just glorious. You also do that in Long Way Down. “You coming?”

Debbie Millman:

And I should be giving some spoiler alerts, but I’m just assuming that everybody in the world has read your books because that’s how important they are. But talk about that. Ambiguity. Why do you like your readers to construct their own endings?

Jason Reynolds:

Because I respect them. The truth of the matter is nobody wants you to wrap it all up. This is something that I learned over the years. My first novel, when When I Was the Greatest was written, the ending was very different. My editor wrote me a note, my very first editorial letter. She said, “Hey, man. It’s a shame that you don’t trust yourself. It’s a shame. All this talent, all this ability. Man, you’re going to be something when you learn to trust yourself.” And her name is Caitlyn, Caitlyn Dlouhy. And that note was the note that helped me understand what I’m doing here and what an ending actually should be, for me, for my style.

Jason Reynolds:

I believe that because my demographic, the way that my books are marketed are to young people, I think it’s important that they know I respect them. And that respect, basically, comes from me telling them and challenging them by saying, “Hey, I’ve given you 250 or 300 pages. I believe that you have the reasoning ability, and the intelligence and the sophistication, to come up with whatever you think the next page is on your own, or to live in the uncertainty of the story. I believe in you enough to know that you are capable of that.”

Jason Reynolds:

And that’s the reason… If I tell you everything that happens, if I write this story for three or four more pages, then what that says to you is that I don’t think you have the intelligence, the emotional intelligence or the critical-thinking skills, to do any of this work on your own, and I just don’t feel that way. I just don’t feel that way.

Debbie Millman:

I want to ask you about one of the lines in Ghost, but in order to really do that, I have to read the paragraph that it ends with. And so if you don’t mind, I’m going to read a paragraph from Ghost, which I’m glad you said that your work should be read out loud because I wanted to read this. It starts this way.

Debbie Millman:

“And the conversation for the rest of the night was pretty much all about the Olympics. Coach didn’t really say too much more about it. It was mainly just us talking about what it must have been like and all that. But I was glad that we were off my secret. It was like I had never even said anything about what happened with my dad, even though I did. And it seemed like everybody at the table cared and didn’t care at the same time.

Debbie Millman:

And that made me feel, for the first time, like I was one of them. They even asked me if I needed to borrow some practice gear, which I thought was nice, but I told them I was cool, that my mother was going to get me some soon, even though I hadn’t even asked for none yet. Plus, I kind of wanted my first Jersey and shorts to be the ones I ran my first race in, which I hadn’t really even thought about until just then. But I appreciated them offering to look out for me. Not many people do that. I could add them to the list of my mother, Mr. Charles and, well, Coach. And it felt good to feel like one of the teammates, like I was there. Really, really there. As me, but without as much scream inside.

Jason Reynolds:

Hmm.

Debbie Millman:

I just, I need… I’m like about to cry.

Jason Reynolds:

Me too, actually. I’ve never had. I don’t think I’ve heard anybody else read it. Jesus, it’s making me emotional.

Debbie Millman:

Talk about that scream inside. Because, as I said, you’re writing about a young Black boy in school, in middle school, and I’m a 60-year-old white woman. I felt it so viscerally in my bones as just humanity, the scream inside.

Jason Reynolds:

I think, as I try to get myself together, it’s weird when I have so much distance at this point, when it comes to that story, that it feels like it’s somebody else’s. So to hear it as a bit… It’s kind of got me a little… Sheesh.

Debbie Millman:

It’s an incredible book. It’s an incredible book. When is it going to be a movie?

Jason Reynolds:

Don’t even get me started on that. Jesus. It’s been quite a… It’s supposed to be a TV show. The series is supposed to be a TV show, but you know, it all moves slow. It’ll happen eventually.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. The four books have to be. They’re extraordinary.

Jason Reynolds:

I appreciate that.

Debbie Millman:

They are an extraordinary series. But yes, back to the scream inside.

Jason Reynolds:

The scream inside, I think I’m around so many kids. I’ve been fortunate that the books have put me in position to be around the world’s youth. And I think that the hardest part is trying to figure out how to give language to the things that feel so intangible but that we all know are there. I think about the uprisings. I don’t want to call them riots, but the racial uprisings. And the way that people talk about them, if you’re not from those communities, you ask these questions about, why would they break their own things? Why would they destroy buildings in their own communities? And it’s like, well, if you remember being a child and if you remember not being able to express a frustration, or not having the vocabulary or the language to put to the feelings you have inside, all of our experiences in that moment are the same.

Jason Reynolds:

We reach for our own toys and break our own toys. It’s just what human beings do when they can’t figure out how to articulate the scream inside. And I think, for me, writing Ghost, I think that was the one thing I wanted to really drill down on, is that this kid is carrying a tremendous weight. He’s not letting it stop him, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there. It hasn’t made him bitter. It hasn’t made him a lesser friend. It hasn’t made him a lesser son. And that speaks to that child’s resilience and the resilience of the children of our world, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. Even if you can’t see it, it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. Even if he can’t say it, it doesn’t mean that it’s not there.

Jason Reynolds:

And I think that’s not even just kids. That’s all of us. We carry just so much, and it’s heavy for all of us. And I don’t know, I guess I’m always just trying to figure out how to put that down on the page to set somebody else free, to let somebody else know I get it.

Debbie Millman:

I feel it in everything that you write. In Long Way Down, you give the protagonist of the story a very big life choice. And I know that when you were 19, your friend Randell was murdered. And then that night, you’ve written about how your friends and you went to his mom’s house, trying to figure out who did this and you were thinking very much about revenge, thinking about the possibilities, envisioning murdering the man who murdered your friend.

Jason Reynolds:

Sure.

Debbie Millman:

You wrote, “I just remember the pain, the pain of the lost friend, but also the pain of meeting a part of myself that I didn’t know existed. A part of myself that could lose control to the point where I could commit a murder.” That’s a very human thing. I think that most of us don’t ever meet that part of ourselves that exists within all of us, this rage that, when triggered, will cause you to do the things that you don’t necessarily understand that you’re doing.

Jason Reynolds:

Yep.

Debbie Millman:

And for me, that is the scream inside. And for me, it feels very real. It feels like… I think that’s why people get angry and why they sort of lose their shit, because of the grief they’re really feeling, the deep scream inside that can only come out as anger, as opposed to grief.

Jason Reynolds:

Absolutely. Absolutely. I always tell people, in the ’90s and early 2000s, and even now… And it started in the ’70s, this idea that we would use the word peace as a greeting and salutation. Peace, peace, peace. Peace for hello. Peace for goodbye. And that’s cool, right? It’s a beautiful thing, but it’s also circumstantial because the truth is that everybody’s peaceful until that piece is challenged. I always tell people, “If you got kids,” which I don’t, but I’m around them and I have all my friends have children, and also I just love children. But if you have children, or, for that matter, ask your parents.

Jason Reynolds:

Everybody’s… You may have peaceful parents, but if anything were to happen to you, we see it. We meet a new part of your parents. And for the parents in the world, if anything were to happen, God forbid, to your children, you would meet a very different part of yourself. A part of yourself that could do a thing, a heinous thing that you never thought that you could do. And I met that at 19, and I think… And I’m grateful. Mind you, I want to be clear. I’m grateful to have met that part of me. It’s good to know it’s there. It’s good. Because now I can better manage it because now I know it. I know it. I have an intimate relationship with it in a very different way, and so now I’m able to harness that differently and, like you said, to understand that this is grief. That this doesn’t have to be violence but that, really, I had to figure out how to better mourn and how to better grieve, where to put my anger.

Debbie Millman:

Jason, I have two last questions for you. I know that we’re going long. First, I want to talk with you about censorship. You seem to be a real target right now, a favorite target of the censors. Last year, two books, you co-authored, including All American Boys, which you wrote with Brendan Kiely, about a racially-charged police beating, made the ALA’s most-challenged book list. It seems that people are saying that you’re indoctrinating children when you’re really talking about what’s real.

Jason Reynolds:

Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

How are you managing through that? It seems just tragically unfair to keep anybody away from being able to read your books. They’re the books that, especially children there, you’re telling them the truth about the world.

Jason Reynolds:

Yeah. It’s weird. It always feels weird, and my honest emotions around censorship is that it’s strange, it’s frustrating, it’s unloving, as far as I’m concerned. That being said, I only really care about the kids. So the way that I cope and deal is I keep my eye on the prize. The prize are these babies. If the children are good with it, then the children are good with it. If the parents want to get in the way of that, I’ll do everything I can to circumvent, if I can. But I also don’t want to tell people how to parent, right? That’s not my place.

Debbie Millman:

But is it the parents’? It doesn’t feel like it’s the parents that are objecting. It’s these administrative people that probably haven’t even read the books.

Jason Reynolds:

Nah, it’s the parents because the administration only moves when the parents come and complain. So what happens is parents come, and they go to the school board and they go to the superintendent and they say that you’re indoctrinating our… these books are changing our children and this, that and there, and then the administration is so afraid of that pressure that they pull the plugs on our books. So that’s what’s happening, and it’s always one or two parents, or a handful of parents that affect whole curriculums or whole libraries. It’s wild how this is happening.

Jason Reynolds:

And then the politics come in and they use it as sort of political ploy and ways to… They basically are using our children as pawn for their political ideologies. So this is what’s happening. All of it is nasty and disgusting, and we should be ashamed of ourselves. When I say we, I mean America on a whole, that this is even a thing, but I will continue to fight the good fight and make the things that feel honest.

Jason Reynolds:

In terms of the indoctrination thing, I also think that that’s a bunch of nonsense. I hear it all the time and I challenge it. I challenge even the language of indoctrination because, if we’re being completely honest and if we wanted to wrestle with these ideas, which, of course, we do not because we hate to sort of intellectualize the things that should be intellectualized. But if we were, just for S’s and G’s, if we were to really wrestle with the ideas of indoctrination, I personally would argue that it isn’t me who’s indoctrinating young people. They’ve already been indoctrinated.

Jason Reynolds:

Everything is indoctrinating. I hate this idea that it’s like, “Oh no, if it’s something I disagree with, it’s indoctrination.” As if school hasn’t already done this, parenting hasn’t already done this, religion hasn’t already done this. Video games isn’t doing it. YouTube, TikTok. Indoctrination is everywhere. All I’m saying is, wouldn’t it be nice to just figure out how to shift the doctrine so that it’s a doctrine of peace and justice, and equality and equity, and inclusion and love and fairness. What if we could do that? Because this idea that I’m indoctrinating them is a silly point because everything is indoctrinated. It’s so weird.

Debbie Millman:

I think your work is the opposite of that. I think your work teaches tolerance.

Jason Reynolds:

Exactly. Exactly. And I’m totally game for the disagreement. I’m just not game for the disengagement. Let’s actually lean in and really wrestle with some ideas. That’s all my books are meant to do. They’re just playgrounds for ideas. You don’t have to agree with them. I take umbrage with you disagreeing with my right to live, but in terms of the ideas and all the theories, we can spar. And our babies should know that. Our babies should know that it is important to wrestle with the ideas that impact your life, and to try to get to the truth and to the bottom of all the things that impact your life, so that you might be able to bend them back toward a place of equity and justice to better impact your life. And you can actually then change the future. We can’t change the future if we are afraid to give our young people the tools to do so. It doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t make sense. I’m not a boogieman.

Debbie Millman:

No. The opposite. The opposite. Well, this leads me to my last question. You’ve said that you believe that young people are the antidote to hopelessness.

Jason Reynolds:

Yes.

Debbie Millman:

Do you feel, in this moment, where everything seems to be insecure, do you feel optimistic about the future?

Jason Reynolds:

Yes, because I have to. I don’t want to ever allow myself to become cynical. I think it’s too dangerous for a person like me. One time I was talking to James McBride, the great writer, musician James McBride, and he said, “Jason, pessimism is healthy. Cynicism is dangerous.” And I just, I refuse to allow myself to slip into that hole. I think it’s too deep of a hole to climb out of most times. And that’s the reason why I surround myself with the kids, the young people. Young people believe that the world is a changeable place, and therefore the world is a changeable place. I’d rather live there. What’s happening on the news, I’m careful with that. For my own mental health, I’m careful with taking in too much of it. I’d rather go and look at what tomorrow holds, and what tomorrow holds are a whole bunch of young geniuses with a whole lot of fire, a whole lot of scream inside. The kind of scream that’ll burst the eardrums of hate. That kind of scream. That’s what they have, and I’d rather be with them.

Debbie Millman:

Jason Reynolds, thank you so much for making so much work that matters. And thank you, thank you, thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.

Jason Reynolds:

Oh, thank you for having me. I cried all over your show. We had a moment.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah, me too. Jason, his most recent two books are titled Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Anti-racism, and You, with Ibram X. Kendi, and Ain’t Burned All the Bright, which is so amazing and so beautiful, with his dear friend, the illustrator Jason Griffin.

Debbie Millman:

You can find out more about all of Jason’s extraordinary books at Jasonwritesbooks.com. This is the 18th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we could make a difference or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.