Jason Reynolds published two prose novels in 2016 (Ghost and As Brave As You) and will have published two prose novels (Patina and Miles Morales) and a verse novel (Long Way Down) by October of this year. When he’s not busy writing, he’s racking up awards (the 2016 Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature and an Honor award from the 2017 Coretta Scott King Book Awards). He is also a thoughtful advocate for diversity in children’s books; I caught up with him recently over the phone.
During your Coretta Scott King Award speech in June, you talked about the fact that your undergraduate thesis adviser didn’t think that some black writers we think of as major writers—like Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, and Ralph Ellison—are part of the canon because to be part of the canon a writer must “shape or shift the face of literature,” according to your professor. Why do you think he wasn’t willing to include those writers?
I think he comes from a school of thought that so many people of his generation come from. He was a hyperacademician; he was all academic everything. Some literature was Literature and some was literature, not real literature, and that bar was an impenetrable standard. My issue with that is that what it does is it dismisses any inkling of evolution. It literally says that everything we know about literature comes from these dead white guys. There has to be room for new ideas. What a strange thing to think of any art form, that things can’t shift. The other part of that is that whether he was intending to or not, he was just bolstering the dead white guys but dismissing all these great writers of color and women writers, for that matter. He was saying they were less than, and that was the part that was hurtful.
You also said in that speech that the canon needs to be diversified so that black characters’ lives are seen as polylithic, not monolithic. Do you think that that is happening?
Absolutely. I’m not one of these guys who believes there’s no change. I think that’s a cop-out. But it happens slowly, very slowly. We’re seeing more and more representation of black and brown culture, but it takes time. The reason so many of us are so impatient is because we think it’s taken too long. One of the dangers of there not being diversity is that when those of us who are in the industry are fighting to put these books out, it’s hard for us not to think about what can be black but also sell? You get clichéd stereotypes because that’s what you think the masses want to buy. If I really want to show my sliver of blackness with all of its integrity, I have to be honest without worrying that my honesty might not be palpable for the masses. It becomes a cliché when you think, ‘let’s create what we think is going to sell because we’re so happy to be in the game,’ and that comes from not having gotten the shot before. It’s such a messed-up thing. How can I write something with honesty and integrity without the fear that no one’s going to get it?
As the author of Miles Morales, the novel about the new, Afro–Puerto Rican Spider-Man, what’s your response to Marvel executive David Gabriel’s statement a couple months ago that customers are “turning their noses up” at diversity? (He later clarified that Marvel is “proud and excited to keep introducing unique characters that reflect new voices and new experiences into the Marvel universe and pair them with our iconic heroes.”)
There are purists in every category who believe that Spider-Man is Spider-Man and Peter Parker is a white boy from Queens, no matter what. On the flip side, there are also people who have a really hard time wrapping their minds around the ideas that black and brown people can’t be superheroes. What he really wants to say but doesn’t say is there are people who are comic book fans who are afraid of change, who are afraid of their favorite superhero no longer looking like them. It’s all about discomfort. What happens when that nerd in the world no longer looks like you and looks like the people you fear subconsciously, the people you have subconscious biases against? Some Marvel readers aren’t ready for the diversity conversation yet, but there are so many characters that [the executive] is shorting his own customer base.
How did you approach researching and writing a girl like Patina Jones in your August novel, Patina, given that her identity isn’t part of your own experience?
I tell you, man, the thing about girl characters for me, the first thing I did was to remind myself that girls are human beings, surprisingly enough! She sleeps and eats and has fear and laughter like anyone else. I also thought of all the girls I grew up with. Girls are sometimes expected to carry more weight than boys; by the time you’re 12, you have responsibilities—you need to make sure your little brother is fed and bathed, whereas boys get to be boys. There are things they were forced to do as kids that boys weren’t forced to. The last part was about making sure I fought clichés, making a girl’s life dependent on whether a boy protected her. We restrict women of agency every time we strap them to a boy. It’s unhealthy! It’s also violent, this idea that you have no value unless you’re attached to a boy. Ninety percent of the girls in [Patina] are women.
You’ve given a number of speeches where you talk about your desire to give black readers the mirrors you never had. What do you want kids of other ethnicities to get from your books?
All I really want—it’s very simple—is for kids who grew up in this kind of neighborhood I write about, I want them to feel less ashamed. And for kids who didn’t, I want them to feel less fear. And that’s what literature is supposed to do.