Jason Reynolds famously didn’t read a novel cover-to-cover until he was nearly 18. At 36, he is one of the preeminent—and most prolific—young adult authors of this or any other generation, earning accolades and awards and carving a niche for both himself and an oft-overlooked demographic of would-be readers just like he once was by centering Black boys in his work. Like Black boys coming of age, the young adult market is frequently misunderstood and underestimated, but as Reynolds reminds us on this week’s episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!, the canon of classic literature is full of narratives centering or intended for younger audiences.
“Who else is there to write for?” he laughs, “the crazy thing about it is, one, all of your favorite books you read when you were in the seventh and eighth grade and you call them classics...they will be categorized as young adult: To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye, all these books that everybody looks at as part of the American canon. These are books that existed before the categories existed.
“Number two, most of my buddies who work in the adult sector have never tried to write for young people. And if you try to write for young people, you realize how difficult it is,” he continued. “I would argue that those of us over here who know how to do it well have an extraordinary amount of skillsets, an extraordinary amount of talent that most people just can’t understand unless you try it. And three, those folks who look down upon children’s literature, don’t know that they’re not looking down upon children’s literature. They’re looking down upon children. Right?”
While Reynolds has made a name for himself crafting relatable original narratives that have expanded the young adult canon, his latest effort posed a different challenge: adapting Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning epic historical chronicle of race in America, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America for a younger audience. Reynolds’ “remix,” Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You became an instant bestseller when it was published in March, and a staple as demands for books on antiracism escalated in spring and summer. But as he revealed during our discussion, despite being asked by the author himself, the prospect of adapting Kendi’s approximately 500-page history was so daunting he initially declined—repeatedly—before embarking on a “brutal” adaptation process.
“I was face to face with a lot of my insecurities when working on this book,” Reynolds admitted. “Am I smart enough? Do I even understand what he—do I understand what he’s saying in this book?
Stamped belies that labor; despite its subject matter, the book is a relatable and even entertaining read, accessible to most ages, and deserving of its accolades. Nevertheless, Reynolds, like many other authors who’ve landed on bestsellers’ lists this year, has had difficulty enjoying success amid this prolonged season of Black death and racial reckoning.
“It’s complicated because I’ve never been a race profiteer. I’m not interested in getting rich on blood money,” he says. “I’m a Black person for real. I love us. And I don’t want to ever feel nasty or icky about profiting from so much pain because it’s very real for us. It’s very real for, for many of us. And so I’m proud of what I made with Stamped and I’m happy that it is in the zeitgeist the way that it is. But I also know that for many people, it’s just fodder.”
Hear this and much, much more on Episode 9 of The Root Presents: It’s Lit: Jason Reynolds on Why Kids Are the Best Audience to Write For, featuring the indefatigable Jason Reynolds, now available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public. Also available is a transcript of this week’s episode.