Award-winning author Jason Reynolds, a 2019 National Book Award finalist in young people’s literature for his book “Look Both Ways,” knows how to engage Black children because, as he told The New York Times in a profile published on Monday (October 28): “I can talk directly to them in a way that I know they’re going to relate to because I am them, and I still feel like them.”

“Have you seen him?” writer and poet Jacqueline Woodson asked The Times when asked for her thoughts on Reynolds’ magnetism. “Kids have not been exposed to a writer who looks like he does, who sounds like he does, who has that deep honesty and connection with them like he does,” Woodson said. “He really sees these kids.”

The prolific writer—he’s published 13 books since 2014 and sold more than 2.5 million copies of those books—opened up in the profile about why he writes specifically for young Black readers.

On including tragedy and laughter, and making boys cry:

“There’s always a joke somewhere,” he said. “You don’t go through what Black and Brown people have been through in this country and survive without understanding how to tap into joy.” And he often portrays boys crying or feeling uncertainty or fear, because, he said, “I need boys to know that it’s okay.”

On why you should never stop hustling for a dream:

He described his first attempts at getting published as straight out of a rapper’s playbook: cut a demo, then “run into a record company or you find Russell Simmons’s limousine and you throw it in the car.” For him, the demo was a book he and his college roommate had self-published. After graduating from the University of Maryland in 2005, they moved to New York and tried to slip it to security guards at publishing houses, hoping it would wind up in an editor’s hands. The method didn’t work. Reynolds settled into a career in retail, and tried three times to get into MFA programs but was rejected. One day, his friend Christopher Myers visited him at the Rag & Bone store he was managing and encouraged him to start writing again.  

On knowing and respecting your audience: 

Reynolds worries sometimes that his books might be read as “trauma porn” by people who didn’t grow up where he did, where “your neighbor could be a schoolteacher, federal government workers, but then you also had dope boys.” But, he added, referring to “Long Way Down,” “my shorties, my kids, my family, they read it, and they know exactly what this book is about.” 

Visit The Times to read the entire profile.