Jason Reynolds Shares Stories with Lithonia High
Lithonia High School, in partnership with local nonprofit Page Turners Make Great Learners, welcomed nationally-known-author Jason Reynolds to DeKalb County the morning of Monday, April 9. The author arrived at 9 a.m. to sign 400 free copies of his latest book, For Every One, and speak with students.
Reynolds, who has been featured on CBS This Morning as well as The Daily Show, is the winner of the Kirkus Award, Newberry Award, Prince Award, National Book Award, Walter Dean Myers Award, and the NAACP Image Award.
Reynolds’ work, authored since the age of 17, is praised for capturing the struggles and emotions of the black American experience. One of his most recent works, Long Way Down, is currently being adapted into a feature film by musician John Legend and remains a favorite among Lithonia High students.
Reynolds told those gathered that it’s ironic that he is now a professional author. He related that he had aversion to reading while growing up—a theme that consistently shows in his stories. Reynolds said the books he was required to read did not relate to his day-to-day experiences, and therefore, served no purpose.
“This was a time when everybody was either dealing [drugs] or doing [drugs]. So imagine growing up, getting to school every day, and your teacher would say, ‘We want you to read a book about this man on a boat chasing a whale,’” Reynolds said. “Or they would say, ‘Read Lord of the Flies,’ and I would say, ‘No, because I grew up on that island. I know about survival of the fittest. I know what it means to fight for mine every single day. And I know this author is going to get it wrong.’ They would ask us to read To Kill a Mockingbird. And I would say, ‘No, because no one like Atticus Finch actually exists.’ I would ask teachers, ‘Why don’t any of these people talk like me, walk like me or act like me? Why don’t their neighborhoods look like my neighborhood?’ I refused to accept something that did not accept me.”
Reynolds said he did not read an entire book until he was 18 years old. He said he was inspired by rap music lyrics—specifically Queen Latifah—to express himself and begin writing. Reynolds wrote every day, which helped him deal with such traumas as his father leaving, his brother dealing with addiction, his friends becoming involved in violence and his mother fighting cancer.
“They said rap was going to be the death of a generation. But Rap was saving a lot of our lives. Rap was saying things that these books were not saying,” Reynolds said. “I realized all of my [rap] heroes were writing poetry.”
Reynolds’ habits allowed him to attend University of Maryland, College Park. His aversion to reading books, however, caused him to struggle. He was put on academic probation, and said he would have failed out of the school if he hadn’t shared his poetry with a Shakespeare professor, who challenged Reynolds to do better.
Another teacher, who could tell Reynolds was not reading, asked him to read Black Boy by Richard Wright. Reynolds considered the book a game changer.
“In the second page of this book, the main character sets his mother’s curtains on fire and burns the whole house down,” Reynolds said. “This is what I had been looking for my whole life. It wasn’t boring.”
Reynolds revisited Moby Dick, Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird and discovered the joy of reading. He also discovered that his relationships, vocabulary, grades, outlook and empathy improved, which allowed him to graduate from college.
After graduating, Reynolds traveled to Brooklyn, New York to become enveloped in rap culture and write full-time. Six months later, at 21 years old, he landed a publishing contract. The immediate taste of success, however, caused homelessness and a comparatively mediocre life.
Reynolds advised Lithonia High School students to take care of business at a young age to have things to fall back on, such as graduate school, comparable work, teaching opportunities, and more.
During this time, however, Reynolds embraced the experiences of his own life and began crafting them into stories, which now make up the majority of his work. His and his brother’s stories are captured in “When I Was the Greatest”. His experiences of losing friends at a young age became “The Boy in the Black Suit”. His friends’ experiences became “Ghost”. His own near-experience with revenge is detailed in a Lithonia High favorite—”A Long Way Down”.
Reynolds concluded by advising students to embrace reading and writing now, at their age, and embrace the great stories offered by people like himself. He also encouraged students to love and embrace their own stories.
“I told you what it’s like if you don’t do this, what it’s like in the long run,” Reynolds said. “I’m working really hard to give you the opportunity I did not have. These books did not exist when I was your age. People are going to tell you everything that’s wrong with you. Turns out, these things give you magic. Once you learn how to own them, you can change them.”
Lithonia High principal Derrick McCray said it was a joy to host an author that students wholeheartedly enjoy. He hopes Reynolds’ story inspires them to continue reading and become better learners.
“They are so intrigued—they really can’t put his books down,” McCray said. “His visit brings a hands-on education experience. To hear his story—someone who has done great things and continues to do great things—inspires them. We may have the next poet, writer, author sitting here today at Lithonia High School.”