Jason Reynolds Officially Becomes National Ambassador of Young People's Literature at Library of Congress Ceremony

Newly inaugurated into the role, Reynolds promised to build on the efforts of his predecessor, Jacqueline Woodson.

The medal has officially been passed.

At an inauguration ceremony at the Library of Congress on Thursday, author Jason Reynolds became the seventh National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. He will hold the post for two years.

Before introducing Reynolds, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden thanked the outgoing ambassador, Jacqueline Woodson, for inspiring with her work and her words and her personal interactions with kids across the country. Woodson then spoke for a few minutes to the audience, which included young people.

Woodson spoke about her time as 2018–19 ambassador, traveling the world and speaking with young people. She shared a couple of stories, including one of going to Alabama and visiting a juvenile home for boys, most of whom were white. She said she had engaged with all of the boys and had “a fabulous time.” When she was leaving, however, some of the boys gave her the upside-down "OK" symbol used by white supremacists. She didn't know what it meant at the time, but when she learned, "I thought to myself, ‘Well, OK, this is what you have right now and I still see you,’” she said. “I think the role of the ambassador is to go around the country and see people and let you know how much y’all matter to us, we love you all so much, young people. You are going to save us. And I’m sorry you have to save us....

“You do this work because you feel like there’s a way you can create change,” she said. “More than ambassadors, we’re activists. We’re trying to create change. We’re trying to have the conversations that are going to move this country and this world forward somehow.”

She then removed her medal from around her neck.

“It is with great delight I take this medal off and pass it on,” she said.

When it was Reynolds’s turn to speak, he vowed to uphold the responsibility and, he too, told a couple of stories. The first directly related to his platform as ambassador, “GRAB THE MIC: Tell Your Story.”

He was on an author visit at the middle school in Florida when he watched a girl stand with him in front of staff and students and gain the courage to speak into the microphone. She was visibly moved by hearing her voice reverberate around the room.

“In that moment, you could see her begin to swell, just to hear her voice loudly,” Reynolds said. “In that moment, I realized, this is it, this is the thing—maybe it’s that young people honestly just don’t know yet what it feels like to know their voices have power. Maybe that’s because we as adults aren't doing a good enough job at letting them know and creating spaces for them to do so. We’re not giving them the mic.”

He then shared a conversation he and Woodson had years ago at an awards ceremony where he was being honored. He considers Woodson both a friend and a mentor. That day he felt compelled to tell her that no matter how well he did, he would never be as good as her.

“I’ll never forget her squinching up her face,” Reynolds recalled. “She said, ‘I guess you think that’s a compliment. Why do you think I’ve worked so hard for the last 30 years? For you to not pass me? Your job is to do all I’ve done in half the time and push it forward.’

“I want to say, ‘Jackie, I will do what I can to push the line, to take what you’ve done over the last 30 years—to take what you’ve done over the last two years—and use it as a seed to make it bigger, to reach more young people, and to truly honor the work you’ve done for us—the collective ‘we’—by doing the very best I can. You have my word.’

“I appreciate you all. Thank you for this. Let’s get to work.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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