Last month, I heard Jason Reynolds speak at an event promoting his debut picture book, There Was a Party for Langston (Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum, Oct. 3), illustrated by Jerome and Jarrett Pumphrey (also on hand), held in the Langston Hughes Auditorium at New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. It was a fitting venue, given that the book centers on a 1991 celebration that marked the opening of the auditorium. A photo of Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka dancing that evening inspired Reynolds to pen this soaring tribute to Hughes. Images of writers cutting loose have long captivated him. He told moderator Jacqueline Woodson that one of his favorite photos shows Toni Morrison dancing with wild abandon at a disco party in 1974, and he cherishes the memory of doing the Rock Steady with Alice Walker at her birthday party. Reynolds said, “I have an obsession with seeing writers doing things that are not writing. I think it’s important to see our people, our heroes, dancing.”
It’s tempting to view the writers we love as rigorous scholars devoted only to their craft, or as godlike figures immune from self-doubt. But when we see writers in the flesh, we’re reminded that they’re real people. The photo of Angelou and Baraka helped bring that idea home, but so did hearing Reynolds open up about his uncertainties. Though only 39, he’s racked up countless awards and was named the Library of Congress’ National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Even so, when asked by an audience member how he’s managed to write so prolifically, he responded, “Barely.” As a Black author, he’s felt immense pressure to deliver: “There’s a fear you won’t get a second swing. Because of that...I’ve chosen to overcompensate.…I’m not sure it’s always been so beneficial to my health.”
I was struck, too, by Amanda Gorman’s words when she spoke at New York City’s Symphony Space in September to promote her picture book Something, Someday (Viking, Sept. 26), illustrated by Christian Robinson, also on stage. The National Youth Poet Laureate held the nation in the palm of her hand when she read “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration in 2021, but she’s faced struggles of her own. She told moderator Renée Watson that when she was younger, a speech impediment made it hard for her to say certain words, so she would edit her poems to make them easier to recite.
I was especially happy that young people were in the audience at both events. For many kids, particularly those who aren’t eager readers or academically inclined, writing may seem intimidating. But in revealing a more vulnerable side, Reynolds and Gorman are empowering the next generation. Reynolds’ words of encouragement to young writers said it all: “You might be afraid—some of the words [you create] might not even be real words....But once you’ve made up a word, it’s real. [Language] should be something that’s playful, that’s whimsical. We can bend it how we want to bend it, as long as there’s an intention behind the bend.”
Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.