Alum Writes the Stories He Didn’t See as a Youth
Photo by Jati Lindsay
Jason Reynolds ’05 has written 11 books, but he’d never even finished reading one until his freshman year at the University of Maryland, when he found himself gripped by the urgency of Richard Wright’s “Black Boy.”
Nowhere on bookshelves had he recognized himself or the events that shaped his life as a young man of color growing up in Oxon Hill, Md.: the crack epidemic, the advent of HIV/AIDS or the emergence of hip-hop. “There are very few books that I know of written during that time that talk directly about those things,” Reynolds says.
That’s why The New York Times-bestselling author, who released both “Sunny” and “For Every One” in April, has built a career telling nuanced and complex tales about black children in true-to-life detail.
His characters observe the racial dynamics at the local pizza place. They get gentle lectures from their pastors. Their parents explain the importance of obeying police officers’ orders. And throughout, they speak in the vernacular of black teenagers.
Reynolds’ novels could be set in his hometown, where he and his older brother were raised by a mother he calls the hardest-working woman he’s ever known. The high school near his house was “the worst in that whole area,” and there were blocks he was advised not to walk down. “But at the same time you could see people who worked government jobs and lower-middle-class people trying to make ends meet,” he says.
After graduating from Bishop McNamara High School, Reynolds enrolled at UMD, where he felt underprepared academically but discovered open mics, poetry readings and a black literary community. “Maryland gave me an outlet to express myself,” he says—and its proximity to the thriving black arts scene in Washington, D.C., centered at the intersection of 14th and U streets, was a perk.
English Professor Michael Olmert, who taught Reynolds in an 18th-century poetry and satire class, later wrote the foreword to one of Reynolds’ poetry collections. He describes Reynolds as quiet, funny and smart, and says, “Sometimes it seems there are more people who want to be poets than people who want to read poetry. Not Jason.”
After graduation, Reynolds and his college roommate Jason Griffin moved to Brooklyn and self-published a coffee table book called “Self.” That landed in front of a friend’s agent and led to a contract with HarperCollins, but his next book flopped. Dejected, Reynolds thought he might be more successful focusing on his day job selling clothes at a Rag & Bone store in Manhattan.
A friend, writer Christopher Myers, encouraged Reynolds to keep trying. “I scribbled down as honestly as possible the story of my older brother and his friends,” Reynolds says. That book, 2014’s “When I Was the Greatest,” was a personal and professional success. “Once I got that novel done, it was like I had permission to be myself on the page,” Reynolds says.
Since then, Reynolds has written unflinchingly about police brutality, gun violence and domestic abuse. “It is perhaps too easy to call this worthy book timely and thought-provoking,” Kekla Magoon wrote in The New York Times of 2015’s “All-American Boys,” Reynolds’ novel co-written with Brendan Kiely in which a black teenager is beaten by a white police officer. “Let us reach beyond simple praise and treat it instead as a book to be grappled with, challenged by, and discussed.”
Reynolds, whose books have been nominated for the National Book Award, often visits schools and talks to young people who are much like he once was. “I try to get them to understand that stories are not reserved for special people or people outside of their communities,” he says. “They have stories. They can own their own stories.”
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