October 15, 2017

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“A Flame in Water”: Jason Reynolds on Writing for Middle Grade Readers

Jason Reynolds has not one but two critically acclaimed middle grade novels that are currently topping many mock Newbery lists: As Brave as You and Ghost. Stepping onto the YA scene with 2014’s When I Was the Greatest, Reynolds was awarded the prestigious Coretta Scott King–John Steptoe Award for New Talent. Since then, he’s found an eager and growing fan base of readers with The Boy in the Black Suit and All-American Boys (coauthored with Brendan Kiely). In 2016, Reynolds expanded his talents into fiction for a slightly younger audience: middle graders. If multiple starred reviews and plenty of buzz are any indication, Reynolds’s ability to craft authentic and compelling characters, weave original stories, and connect with readers will see him taking home many more future honors and awards.

What kind of reader were you in middle school? What sort of books did you read?Jason-Reynolds

In middle school, I don’t really remember reading anything. At least not all the way through. One of my teachers assigned The Martian Chronicles, but that didn’t interest me, so I read just enough (and…probably cheated a bit) to pass the quiz. I also remember people telling me to read “Goosebumps,” but I don’t think I ever finished one. But what I loved to read were rap lyrics. So I spent most of my middle school years saving my money to buy cassette tapes so that I could read lyrics (and thank yous) printed in the liner notes. This was the true beginning of my love affair with language.

As Brave as You tackles realistic middle grade problems such as parental squabbling and aging grandparents. What motivated you to switch from young adult characters to middle grade ones?

Ah. The ages that fall into the middle grade category are so complicated. On one hand, you’re still very much a child. But on the other, you feel like you shouldn’t be treated as one—that you have some kind of handle on the world. And this dichotomy causes a bit of dissonance. Snow on a hot day. A flame in water. That’s middle grade. And because of this dissonance, there are an almost unlimited amount of questions to be asked, though the protagonists have to struggle with asking them because they feel like they should already know the answers. To everything. To life. And that’s the recipe for a funny, heartbreaking, complicated story in my eyes. One where emotional and physical unknowns, coupled with the awkward and innocent maturation process of a preteen, drives the narrative.

as-brave-as-you-9781481415903_lgYou deal with issues such as grief and blindness in a matter-of-fact way. Genie has the luxury of asking questions about these things, which not every child has. Did you think of your story as something that would add to the knowledge of your readers, or were these issues something that just arose as part of your story?

You know, I don’t think I was trying to add to the knowledge of my readers as much as I was trying to create a framework for the story. Now the collateral upside is that readers, perhaps, are made aware of some things when it comes to blindness, grief, etc. But my goal was to simply set readers up so that they knew what kind of terrain they were going to be navigating with Genie. Also, there are lots of Genies in the world, and I wanted them all to know that their curiosity is a gift that should be cared for and protected.

In The Boy in the Black Suit, you tackle clothing as part of identity. Clothing is an enormous issue for many middle grade readers and young adult readers because it shows the world who they are, yet few books address it. Why did you?

You nailed it! It totally shows the world who they are, in a way. I mean, the way you describe a young person’s shoes allows you to build personality characteristics implicitly. For instance, clean white Nikes say something about a teen. Dirty Converses say something else. I think if done right, it can lift the characters from the page, adding a depth to them by using a descriptor that most people find shallow, though it’s an inescapable part of who we are.

Middle grade readers are just starting to be allowed out into the communities on their own. You said that you were “taught” how to act, yet still had bad experiences. What do you think is the best way to prepare middle grade readers to face the unpleasantness of the world without making them fearful?

Tough question. I think one thing I’ve always tried to do in everything I write is to make sure all the characters are developed, not just the protagonist. Because if everyone has their own story, their own struggle, then it gives the protagonist—in this case, an 11-year-old boy—the opportunity to see that obstacles aren’t singular. That trouble and pressure don’t only land on his back alone. My hope is to show that though there are bad experiences, perspective given by various people of various age groups provide a courage and confirmation that things will be fine. To be afraid of the world is to let it win. But to be made unafraid through the triumphs of others (until you have your own) is a power. A freedom, even.

There seems to be a cultural dichotomy in the African American experience—many people are raised in Northern cities but have family roots in the South. How did this issue inform Genie’s character and experience, as well as your own?

This dichotomy was the cornerstone of his experience. Going from the North to the South, and vice versa, is like traveling to another country, and, for some, another planet. There are different rules. Different foods. Different belief systems. I remember going down south as a kid. It was always an adventure—an expansion of my comfort zone. To put my hands in the dirt, to roam the fields with my grandfather as he tended to his crops, to hear my cousins’ accents were all part of my development as a child. And as I got older I valued it even more, because it seemed that though I didn’t have a home there, it somehow had a home in me.

In your young adult books, you cover topics that are currently in the news. Now that you’ve ghostentered the middle grade market, will you continue to address hot-button issues, and if so, how? 

I’m honestly not sure, but I can’t imagine writing something that doesn’t involve that which is real. I don’t necessarily always approach my books in order to tackle anything. Instead, I just want to write real characters living real life, and in real life, things happen. That won’t change. Also, it does us no good to dance around the hard stuff. In a time where information is at the fingertips of every human, big or small, young or old, it seems a bit silly to assume they don’t already know what’s going on. So if I can help them synthesize the information so that it makes more sense, and I can do that through an entertaining story, well…why not!

While there are lots of stories about slavery or civil rights, there is a distinct lack of middle grade novels on other areas of black history. That said, have you ever considered delving into historical works?

Hmmmm. Honestly, I haven’t. I’m not against it, obviously, as history tends to find its way into my contemporary stories. But my charge is to make sure I can show young people who they are today. Right now. By the time they get to me, there’s a good chance they’ve read the historical books for young readers and the picture books, and after middle grade, there are a plethora of historical books waiting for them. But during this weird, murky, middle grade age, which many people see as “the crossroad,” I just want them to feel acknowledged and empowered through representation.

Tell us about Ghost, which is part of a four-part series. What’s different about this book/this series than your previous books? How did the concept come together?

Ghost and the whole “Track” series will delve into the lives of four young people, all of whom are the new kids on an elite track team. Ghost is the first of the four, about a hardscrabble young man who has been through a traumatic experience and who, while taking the long way home, finds himself watching a track practice. After a bold decision to bogart the practice to prove that he was faster than their fastest man, Ghost suddenly finds himself, for the first time, a member of a team. With a coach. And it’s on this team that Ghost will have to figure out why he’s running, who he’s running from, and where he’s running to. All of the books explore running in different ways, weaving each character’s lives in and out of track practice, where they are together, and their individual homes and schools, where they’re dealing with life separately. I’m super excited about it.

It’s different than the other books in that I have to tell a whole story each time (so that’s the same), but then the series itself has to be a whole story, cumulatively. So it’s tricky to make sure I’m not answering every question so that I can create touchstones in other books that will illuminate other characters’ stories and create ah-ha moments. Tricky tricky, but so much fun!

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Karen Yingling About Karen Yingling

Karen Yingling is a middle school librarian from the Midwest. She blogs about and reviews children’s literature at msyinglingreads.blogspot.com.

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Comments

  1. I read in wonder for the unknowns I will learn.
    I read with gratitude for the thought that connects words for me.
    I read with hope that others will be brave enough to erase the distractions that prohibit exploration and understanding, so that they may take a quiet moment “to read.”

  2. Diane Tremper says:

    Your interviews always make me feel like I’ve met the author myself, and make me want to read and suggest the books highlighted.
    Best to Mr. Reynolds, who I expect will help many teens, particularly those of color, to navigate what is becoming an even more complicated and divided world.

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