Portage welcomes author Jason Reynolds, who finds ways to engage young readers with stories in verse

Editor's Note: We have received word that Jason Reynolds has postponed all March events. This is still a good story. We hope you will read it and remember it when his appearance is rescheduled.

Jason Reynolds is "trickin' the kids."

He's not only tricking kids into reading his books, he's tricking kids into reading his poetry. And he's getting kids to read about gritty, difficult, real-world subjects.

Reynolds will be at Portage Central High School March 18, as part of the 2020 Portage CommuniTeen Read focusing on his 2017 novel-in-verse, "Long Way Down."

The prize-winning (Newbery Honor, Printz Honor, Edgar Award for best young adult work) novel follows 15-year-old Will. His brother has been shot and killed, so Will grabs a gun and takes his apartment building's elevator down on his way to get vengeance. 

On the long way down, he faces the ghosts of people murdered, ghosts who try to get Will to realize he's just going to be perpetuating the violence.

We spoke with Reynolds via phone. He was in his hometown of Washington D.C.

Hear Jason Reynolds read from "Long Way Down".

Lost Tooth

Having a loved one die is like losing a tooth, where you're always reminded of the loss when your tongue goes to that empty space. 

Reynolds' character in "Long Way Down" describes his brother's murder as a lost tooth, but for Will, it was as if "a stranger, got you strapped down, got pliers shoved into your mouth, gripping a tooth somewhere in the back," and rips the tooth out. 

"It's a completely different experience for sure," Reynolds says.

Reynolds still remembers the feeling. "Long Way Down" comes from personal experience.

"When I was 19 a buddy of mine was murdered, one of my close friends was killed execution-style. And in that moment, when you're a teenager, it sort of awakens a part of you that you never knew existed."

According to "The Rules," which Reynolds writes about in his fiction, and were in effect in Reynolds' old neighborhood, going to police was snitching. Doing nothing but to sit and cry was weak. Reynolds and his group of friends knew they'd have to take care of the killer themselves. 

"We have a hard time talking about anger in this country, right? What it actually is. How real it actually is for young people, because in a lot of young people there's a lot of pain and anger. So, there's a part of me that knows that I could kill a man. But before that day I wasn't so certain. After that day, I was introduced to that other part of my humanity that we all sort of tamp down and work against -- for good reason! But it's there, it's human," Reynolds says.

"After the news of his death, I went to his mom's house, and I told his mother that we would find the dude that killed him, and we would return the favor. We all told his mother that we would follow the neighborhood rules, follow the codes that we lived by."

The dead boy's mother didn't want more killing. "She told us not to, so we didn't."

In writing "Long Way Down," Reynolds wanted to give the message to young readers that "it's about grief, it's about pain, it's not about violence. But everyone wants to make it about violence because that's the easiest conversation to have," he says.

"The more complicated conversation is, how do we deal with the pain and anger of young people? Are we even being fair in our acknowledgment of it, or our erasure of it for that matter? Because I think before we get to the young person committing a violent crime, there's all these other things at play that are never discussed on top of that young person, that are sort of pushing him in a certain way. And that's what I was trying to get across."

We see a lot of murder in TV, movies, in fiction -- even in the best work, violence is still not portrayed in a way that matches what it's like in reality. 

"Exactly. That's not what it's like. And that's another part of it. It's such a part of our culture to romanticize it, but not a part of our culture to actually speak about it as it really is." 

Reynolds laughs. "And I think that's what's so interesting. It's like it's easy for people to believe that pulling a trigger is an easy thing to do. Taking a life is something you've got to live with," he stresses the word, "forever! And having a life taken, the people around them grieve and mourn, forever! It's a permanent thing, that I don't think movies and video games can really illuminate, you know?"

Like what Shakespeare wrote about Lady Macbeth, you can't wash that bloodstain off your hands.

"Nope. And you can't put the bullet back in the gun."

'It ain't rocket science, you know'

How can an author get kids to read?

There's a tendency for young adult authors to "make work that we want them to see, and not work that they want to see," he says.

"We have to make what they want. We can put all of the good stuff and slip that in through the back door. But let's make something entertaining because you're competing against video games and YouTube and all. We're competing! And we're going to lose every time unless we figure out how to work with those things," he says.

"What's working for video games, what's working for YouTube, what's working for Instagram and Snapchat? Well, there's humor, there's drama, there's shorter pieces -- their whole lives are basically vignettes now. So how do we use that and translate it into the art that we make to engage them at a higher level? That's it! It ain't rocket science, you know?"

"Long Way Down" is over 300 pages long, an intimidating length. But on each page is a short bit of free-verse, edgy and blunt.

How does one get a teen, a male teen for that matter, to read poetry? 

Back in his day, reading books of poetry might not seem acceptable among one's peers for a male teen to do, in the same environment where the rules forbid crying and demanded murderous vengeance.

"If anyone would've told me rappers were poets, I think that (attitude towards poetry) would've changed immediately because they were never considered poets, they were never talked about as poets. But the moment I put two and two together, and the people around me helped me put two and two together, I realized that poetry was for me," he says. 

Reynolds's earliest inspirations ranged from Queen Latifah to Public Enemy. When he was around eight during the dawn of the '90s, "My older brother was playing that stuff through the wall. There was a visceral reaction. There was like a chemical change, right? And you could feel it. It was something happening internally in me, just because of the way these words were put together up against this music. And after that, I realized, man! I gotta figure this out! What is this magic? What is this power that, if you put this word next to this word, it can make a person cry? Or this word with this word, it could make a person angry?"

Rap lead to poetry, which as a reading and writing teen he found "bite-sized, it was manageable, it was less intimidating."

Writing books that youth want to read -- "This is all just logic and reason, this isn't like lightning in a bottle. This is just me saying, let's take apart the zeitgeist and say if they want less, let's give them less. But the less will become more if we know what we're doing. I've given them this whole book, but it will be less per page, and once they get used to the feeling of turning a page, and they complete the book, then they'll become addicted to the feeling of completion, and that might turn into more books," he says.

"I'm all about trickin' the kids, man. Trickin' them out of love!"

Remixing "Stamped" for the kids

Reynolds' fiction, from the track-team teen dramas of his "Track" series to the graphic novel "Miles Morales: Spider-Man," is full of teens’ real-world problems. It's all also very much of this time.

"It's all hyper contemporary. Somebody asked, do you care that your books might not last for the long-haul. I don't care! If they can spark a generation right now, they don't have to last 40 years. Ten, 15 years is good enough for me. I'm totally cool with that," he says with a laugh.

With his just-released "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You," a collaboration with Ibram X. Kendi, Reynolds is diving into a real-world problem that is purely non-fiction.

Along with Kendi, he's "remixing" Kendi's 2017 work "Stamped from the Beginning.

How and why do you remix (a term used in music production -- for example, remixing a three-minute pop hit into a seven-minute dance track) another author's book?

Reynolds realized Kendi's original 600-page work looking at the history of American racism since around 1492 to today needed to be made accessible for kids. 

"There's a realization that scholarship is for scholars. But the information that scholars write about, about the lives that everyday people are living," is needed, he says. Young people, or any non-scholar, "don't always have the intellectual capacity to get through, or the time, energy, patience to get through an academic tome." 

Quoted in a New York Times review, Kendi has called Reynolds "a great writer in the purest sense," one who "makes my head bop from side to side."

"Dr. Kendi is my buddy. He asked me to do it. And it's probably the most important thing I've ever made," Reynolds says.

"This might be the most important conversation we could have right now. A re-shaping of the race conversation. So I'm thinking about the vocabulary around race, which then changes the way we talk about it. And the way we talk about it changes the culture of race, and we might actually make some headway. But we can't do that if we don't understand the concepts."

Reynolds wanted to "break the concepts down in a way that young people get, because they're the ones who are really going to drive the conversation and push it forward and turn a corner."

Kids are the only ones who can approach the subject of racism with fresh eyes, Reynolds says.

"They're open to some of the discomfort around it. They're open to some of the struggle when it comes to trying to grapple with such a complex conversation. I think for many of us (older people), it all crystalized, and furthermore, fossilized... and many of us are just, you know, resistant to change," he says.

"Where with the kids it's like, the whole world is theirs. They feel like the world can change, the world could be better. And it's funny, because a part of me wants to call it naiveté, and I think there's a negative connotation to naiveté, but I do think it's a kind of naiveté, a kind of altruism necessary in order for things to happen in a way that we need them to happen. That's just the way it has to be -- you've got to be crazy enough to think that you can change the world in order to change it!"

A lot of adults become the opposite of naive. They become cynics. So, do we need to get to the kids before the cynicism sets in?

"You gotta. Definitely. Once the cynicism sets in, it's hard to break it down."

Once again, Reynolds is being tricky. He's trickin' the kids.

"Trickin' the kids, every day. Svengali, that's me," he laughs.

Jason Reynolds will be at Portage Central High School, March 18. The event is free. For more information visit here.

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.