Avery Jensen [CC BY-SA]

January 13, 2020; Publishers Weekly

Author Jason Reynolds is going on a national tour, but he won’t be doing readings from his published works. Instead, he will be meeting kids around the country and listening to what they have to say.

Reynolds’ tour is part of his platform as the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature from the Library of Congress. It’s called “Grab the Mic: Tell Your Story,” and it really is just about listening to kids. He told Christina Barron at the Washington Post, “I believe that young people—because they’re not told that they have the space to speak up—I think they get a little resentful. I think that all they’re looking for is respect.”

Reynolds, who is an instructor in the MFA Creative Writing program at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, credits his mother with teaching him that children’s voices have value. “She validated my humanity,” he said. “You’re allowed to say that you disagree.”

Grab the Mic comes at a moment when, as NPQ has noted, young people are taking up the mantle of activism and social progress. Autumn Peltier, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Greta Thunberg, the Extinction Rebellion organizers, the Parkland shooting survivors, and others are all actively demonstrating the value of Reynolds’ point.

NPQ has reported on other literary appointments with grassroots missions, including Semaj Brown in Flint, Michigan, and Joy Harjo, also with the Library of Congress. Storytelling as a vehicle for change and empowerment is widespread in the nonprofit sector, thanks in part to the work of organizations like the Center for Story-based Strategy. Last year, PEN America announced a national expansion, opening six centers across the US to stimulate literary culture and defend the freedom of speech.

But unlike PEN America’s centers, which are located in major urban areas, Reynolds plans to visit rural, hard-to-reach communities that aren’t known for being centers of book culture.

“I have plenty of colleagues who are terrified or uninterested in going to those places but if we love children you can’t only love the ones who are convenient. That’s disingenuous,” he said. “I’m going to rural America, and we’re going to pick one or two kids, maybe one of the knuckleheads, or the one with the discipline problems, and have them interview me. Ask whatever they want to ask in front of a live audience.”

The interviews with children will be recorded and archived thanks to a partnership with StoryCorps, an audio archive housed in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Jon Anderson, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, described Reynolds as “a true advocate not only for literacy but for children.”

Adults love to tell children they ought to read, or how great reading is, or how important it is to their success. That’s not the way to go, says Reynolds; they mean well, but issuing directives to “kids who don’t want to read, who live in households where reading is not valued, [or] kids in prison” doesn’t help. Instead, he gets to know them, and once they believe in him enough to read his books, that’s success.

Reynolds recently gave the keynote address he called “Libraries Within Us” at the American Library Association annual conference. He also spoke with WUSA, which he described as “one of my favorite interviews,” and said, “America has a real hard time with children and elders because we see children and elders as half-formed things so the way we talk about them is in a verbiage that’s small…Within the pages of this book, you can be who you wholly are, and perhaps that might be empowering enough to at least add a bit of significance to their lives.”

The author’s love for children, for the written word, and for stories come through loud and clear in his interviews and his writing. He takes over the National Ambassador post from Jacqueline Woodson, who wrote about girls and communities of color and won over two dozen awards.—Erin Rubin