Author Jason Reynolds talks about what inspired his book, Long Way Down, why he writes about boys, and why literacy is more important than literature. Most importantly, he says, "Tell all the kids I love them. It's important that they know that."
Audible: Do you have a favorite reaction from a kid hearing you at an author visit?
Jason Reynolds:
The best ones are always the ones where some young person says they don't like to read, but this is the first book they've ever read. A lot of those kids are 16, 15 years old, and they say things like, "Look, I didn't think there were books that could capture an authentic voice," at least their authentic voice, the voice they are familiar with, which is something I totally understand.

The other thing that's really cool is when I walk into these schools or libraries or bookstores, correctional facilities ... the way young people react to the way that I look is fascinating, because they never expect me to look the way I do. You know, sneakers and T-shirt and tattoos and long hair ... black. I look like them. You know? That's always really, really fascinating because I think there's currency in the familiar. Because of that, I think they're just a little more excited and a little more engaged, simply based on the fact that someone who looks and talks like them could write books about them. There's an authenticity immediately attached to me once they see me in real life.

A: Your voice does make your characters so real. How do you do that?
The voice thing is interesting only because I almost feel like I'm cheating a little bit. I'm an eighties baby; all through the eighties and early nineties, I was a part of the generation that got to see hip-hop grow up, right? Hip-hop, rap music boomed in my childhood and teenage years, and it crystallized in a way no one was certain that it would. The upside of that is the language attached to that music, to that specific culture ... and at the time, it was a specific culture; it was tied to the black community. But as it grew up and spread around the world, hip-hop culture and the language attached to it become youth culture, universally, right? So my natural tongue just happens to be the very thing that 14-year-olds and and 12-year-olds are attracted to by default. So luckily for me, I'm writing in my natural tongue. It's pegged as a voice, and it is a voice, but the truth is it's also just my authentic hand. That's the way I speak when I'm with my friends. That's the way I speak when I'm with my cousins, my family, right? That voice feels so real because it is real.

A: Your characters have so much heart and vulnerability. Can you talk about why that’s important for kids?
This is a motif that runs through all of my books, a deconstruction specifically of masculinity, right? Every single book, no matter what it is, there's a throughline in all the books touching upon the deconstruction of what it means to be a boy. Part of that deconstruction is basically turning the young men inside out. The way these boys are feeling is the way that boys feel. It's just that it's not celebrated in our cultures of young men. So what I'm intending to do is let all these young men off the hook and say, "Guess what? It's okay. I'm going to air this out. I'm going to put it on the page so when you read it, you know it's not just you. It's not just you who feels the pain on the inside. It's not just you who has a hard time expressing yourself. It's not just you who feels fear and insecurity and who wants to cry and who wants to scream. That's all of us because we're human." Because we're human, you know?

A: What led you to start writing for young people?
It was an accident. I got my first contract when I was 21 years old with HarperCollins and back then I had no idea YA was even a thing or middle grade was even a thing. I just wanted to get my stuff out there, and they categorized it as young adult. That was the first time I had ever even heard of it. That book was published, and then I kind of disappeared for a while. When I got back in the industry, the people in my Rolodex that I could call to help usher me back into the game were in the young adult world because children's literature is where I was placed in the beginning.

Then I realized I had this opportunity to write the books I didn't have as a child, and it actually just made sense for me to be in this category, because all I really ever wanted as a kid was to see myself, was to read the stories about kids in my neighborhood or about my family or my friends, and to really figure out how to put the things I was hearing in rap music that seemed so real to me, how to put that stuff on the page for young people so they can have a better chance than I had, right?

A: Congratulations on the National Book Award nomination for Long Way Down What inspired this book?
I get really frustrated with news pundits and other big-mouthed know-it-alls who wag their fingers at young people growing up in challenging and marginalized communities by calling them "thugs" and "animals" and "monsters" and so forth, without ever understanding the ecosystem of these neighborhoods and the culture codes that have existed in these spaces, almost within a vacuum, after decades and generations and eras of the same exact code. It really bothers me that we don't complicate the conversation when it comes to young people in these environments. I spend a lot of time in juvenile detention centers. When you're talking to kids in juvie, you realize that many of them are in there retaliating back and forth, sort of volleying bullets, based on beefs that started in the 1960s and 70s. These are beefs that started 40 years before they were even born, but they don't know that. For them, there are codes to the community. No snitching, no crying, and you always seek vengeance. So if my friend is killed by a rival gang, then my job is to kill the kid who killed my friend, not realizing that 40 years ago is when that original beef began, and now it's just spinning on its own axis. When you compound that with the generational trauma involved, and then you compound that with poverty and education, and then you compound all of it with the social ills that exist in general for poor people and for marginalized people in America, especially people of color, this is what it looks like. This is what it looks like.

The last thing that drove the book is that I lost a friend when I was 19. One of my best friends was murdered. It wasn't the first time I had lost a friend, but it was the worst time, for sure, because of the way he was killed. I remember feeling, though I claimed and was raised to be a peaceful person, that now my peace was challenged and I was forced to grapple with a part of me that could take a life. In that moment, I was certain, as time sort of suspended, dealing with the pain of loss and the way he was murdered, I knew in that particular moment, I could retaliate and be able to sleep at night. And I had to grapple with that strange feeling of knowing that was a part of who I am. And then, fast-forward six months later, of course I'm happy I didn't really do that. But I wanted to tell a story that humanizes people who are dealing with pain and loss without automatically putting them in these strange categories as "inhumane" or as "monsters." They're people, and the very thing that you say makes them monsters is in you; it's in you if your peace and your ethics are challenged. Let something happen to your child or your mother, and then I want to hear you be peaceful, right?

This is what I tried to say: "Look, these young people who are dealing with this, let's wash them in humanity so that we can better serve them by loving them and by being compassionate and empathetic to their situation."

A: Why did you decide to do this novel in verse rather than prose?
Verse is my first love and it's what I studied in school. From the beginning, I wanted to be Langston Hughes. I never wanted to be a novelist. That was never on the agenda. For a story like this that takes place over the course of one minute of a young person's life, I think the functionality of poetry works in this way, right? He's trapped in an elevator, which means he has constraints; he's in a tight space. Poetry can mimic that. His brain is working a mile a minute, and poetry has a way of being immediate and being urgent.

And then lastly, I care about multi-layered, multi-level stories. It matters to me that there are different meanings for almost every part of the book. This book can be read multiple times and you can really journey down the rabbit hole of what it all means. I took my time ... every single word is the word I want, right? So if I'm talking about eczema, yeah, it's eczema, obviously, and then it's the metaphor of scratching something raw, of opening a wound or something being scabbed over and then being undone. And then there's the etymology of the word, which means something like "explosion." All of this stuff matters, and all of it is intentional, and the best way to do that is to use verse.

A: You write for both young adult and middle grade audiences. What are your thoughts about presenting violence and trauma in a middle grade novel vs. a YA novel? Is there a difference there for you?
Not really, not for me. Honestly, I mean, Ghost has his trauma at the beginning, and ... I recognize it's touchy, but I also know that it's only touchy in books. So if I talk about a father shooting at a son in a middle-grade novel, perhaps people are like, "Oh, that's a bit much." Yet children can jump on a video game and simulate robbery and murder. Children can watch YouTube videos and listen to the radio and watch television and get on the Internet and Instagram, and still be children. I try to be as honest and as respectful as possible to the child. I want to respect that human being, and sometimes in order to do so, I need to be honest and forthright. I think when you do that, when you expect them to step up to the plate and level, they oftentimes do.

A: A lot of people are feeling disheartened by the lack of empathy we are seeing in society. Is it naïve to think that diverse books can make a difference?
No, it's not naïve. When we talk about fiction specifically, we talk about it as if fiction is the cornerstone of the whole person. I personally think that's a little dangerous because I know so many people who don't read fiction but who are amazing. There are so many people who, like, only read nonfiction, and those people are whole human beings. So it's a complicated thing.

I will say that the function of fiction ... if it does its job ... is to perpetuate empathy. Books are literally empathy machines. What I do think is naïve is the belief that young people lack empathy. We're serving young people these diverse books so they learn about people who are not like them, and engage and live in the space of characters where they may not be able to every day in hopes that they grow into compassionate and empathetic human beings. Now, being as though I spend time around so many young people, what I'm fortunate enough to learn is that there's a huge, huge bulk of them who are already thinking about the world in that way. So for me, I take great solace. I know they're a little bit more open-minded and a little more empathetic and compassionate than my generation. Yes, there's social media; yes, there's cyber-bullying, the same way there were ills during my generation. But spending time with them, you see so many of them honestly don't care about things we cared about. They honestly don't see why adults can't move on and figure out how to fix the issues, because to them, their friends are their friends, the people around them are the people around them. Whether you're Muslim or whether you're gay ... so many of them honestly just don't see it the way we grew up with it or the way our parents grew up with it, or even the way we're still projecting.

That doesn't mean it doesn't exist, that the state of America isn't in serious trouble, because we are. And it doesn't mean that we shouldn't make sure they hold on tight to their compassion and their empathy, but I want to give them a little bit of credit, right? What we should do is make sure they can maintain this thing that, for a lot of them, already exists. Make sure they can mature into something even more beautiful. But in order to that, we have to acknowledge the fact that a lot of them, a lot of them, are wide open in ways many adults can't even imagine.

A: What do you say to kids who claim they don’t like books or reading?
I claim that they don't like to read the books they have read, or attempted to read. For me it's always funny, because there are so many different stories you could bring up that kids don't know are Shakespeare, right? I always ask, "Okay, so you don't like to read, I understand. Well, do you like the show Empire?" They're like, "Yeah, I love Empire." I'm like, "Well, funny enough, that's King Lear." Or I pitch ideas like, "Hey, so, think about this: there's a man whose mom married the man that killed his father." They're like, "That's crazy!" I'm like, "Yeah, that's Shakespeare."

So I say to young people, "What you don't like is the way the story is being presented to you. It's not that you don't like to read." Some kids are struggling with reading, and that's a different conversation. But for young people who are like, "Reading is boring," the answer to that is, "Yes, it is sometimes—until you find the book that's not boring for you. So let's do our due diligence to find a book that's not boring to you." Sometimes that book is going to be fantasy, sometimes it's going to be something like my stuff, sometimes it's going to be a graphic novel ... sometimes, honestly, if we're perpetuating literacy and not just literature, sometimes it's going to be the Minecraft game book. Sometimes it's going to be Sports Illustrated magazine. Sometimes it's going to be your favorite blog, right? Whatever it is to get you to build a relationship with language, I need to be doing that and not breaking my neck trying to convince you of something that may be futile. I'm not going to be pushing these stories on you if I know you don't really want that. It's more important for me as an adult to make sure you understand what literacy is and how you need it in your life. Let me figure out ways to engage that, and from there, we can start talking about literature.