Jason Reynolds, the New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books for young people, galvanized a roomful of students from eight local middle schools during a talk May 1 in the Campbell Student Union Social Hall.
Invited to speak by Buffalo State University’s Professional Development Schools (PDS) Consortium, Reynolds regaled his audience with stories about growing up in the 1980s. In an animated delivery, Reynolds said he survived off government cheese, ramen noodles, and Kool-Aid in a neighborhood riddled by gun violence, drugs, and a newly emerging pandemic: HIV/AIDS.
“I was lucky enough to discover rap music,” he said, explaining to the youngest members of Generation Z how the cassette tapes he listened to at the time included liner notes, or lyrics.
While politicians and pundits warned that rap would be the “death of a generation,” Reynolds said, he found that the songs mirrored the hard truths he was experiencing, including seeing neighbors and friends die far too young.
Although he admittedly didn’t read books until after high school, because he never saw himself or his experiences represented in the ones assigned in school, he did read liner notes. He said he was especially drawn to the music and lyrics of Queen Latifah. At age 9, he started writing poetry and told his friends he wanted to grow up to be the next Queen Latifah.
Despite a rocky start in college, Reynolds eventually found his way, thanks to one literature professor who helped him see how reading sharpens your imagination, instills persistence, and teaches you how to listen to yourself. Immediately after graduation, the aspiring writer headed to New York City and landed his first publishing contract at age 21. While he worked odd jobs and did a short stint teaching middle school, Reynolds wrote and published prolifically—a mix of novels, poetry, and nonfiction.
His books include Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks; All American Boys; Long Way Down; Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (coauthored with Ibram X. Kendi); and Ghost, a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. The recipient of a Newbery Honor, a Printz Honor, an NAACP Image Award, and multiple Coretta Scott King honors, Reynolds was also the 2020–2022 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. He teaches in the M.F.A. in creative writing program at Lesley University and resides in Washington, D.C.
“It was clear how important Jason Reynolds’s writing and storytelling are for the middle schoolers in attendance,” said Pixita del Prado Hill, chair and professor of elementary education, literacy, and educational leadership, who helped organize Reynolds’s visit. “The event was an amazing opportunity to hear from someone who has written books kids love and created characters they care about and have come to know as their own friends.
After his talk, students formed long lines to ask Reynolds questions. After one boy asked how he makes his work stand out, Reynolds shared a piece of advice applicable to life as well as to writing.
“I never followed trends; I just wrote what was honest for me,” Reynolds said. “I always do me, no matter what. What never changes is authenticity.”
Photos by Jesse Steffan-Colucci, Buffalo State photographer.