Our host Reginald Dwayne Betts chops it up with Jason Reynolds, a beloved author of young adult fiction and poetry. Jason has won all the prizes that dope writers get, including the Kirkus Prize and the Coretta Scott King Honor. In the inaugural episode of The Freedom Takes, Dwayne and Jason discuss their common roots in PG County, Maryland; the importance of literature in the lives of young people; and Jason’s book Long Way Down, of which the Million Book Project has sent 900 copies to readers in juvenile detention centers across the country.
To learn more about The Million Book Project, visit https://law.yale.edu/justice-collaboratory/our-work/projects/million-book-project, and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.
You can find out more about the author and his work by going to https://www.jasonwritesbooks.com/.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:00:01] There's somebody in like, you know, Sydney, Australia right now with a book in their hand that's thinking about the world along the same lines of the conversation that we're having.
Jason Reynolds: [00:00:13] It's literally us manipulating and maneuvering 26 letters into different arrangements that might just liberate somebody.
Miriam Toews: [00:00:21] Literacy is freedom.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:00:23] And so, so many people was yelling, you know, and it was wild to me. And I was like, "And this is literature right here." You know what I mean? I was like, "This is the importance of books."
You're listening to The Freedom Takes, a podcast from The Million Book Project. I'm your host, Reginald Dwayne Betts. The Million Book project sends books into prisons and juvenile detention centers across this country. And on this show, we'll talk to the authors of some of those books about their lives as readers and as writers, and about what it means to them to be free.
We're here today with Jason Reynolds. There are a lot of ways to introduce a writer like Jason. And I'll give you a few of those. He's won all the prizes that dope writers get: a Kirkus Award, a Coretta Scott King Award, a Walter Dean Myers Award. He's written more novels, more books than I'll number here, but you can find his Track Series: Ghost, Sunny and Patina, wherever books are sold. But I want to emphasize three things. First, he's from my hometown, PG County. Second, just before this pandemic struck, we ran into each other at National Airport, and when I went home and I showed my oldest boy that photo, he looked at me. And I don't think that I've ever been cooler in his eyes than in that moment. And third, during this holiday season, Jason went to the local bookstores in the DC Metro area and paid for every copy of his books that were on the shelf. And told folks to just go and pick them up, that they were his gifts to reading public. Brother, thanks for coming on the show and chopping it up with me for a minute.
Jason Reynolds: [00:02:15] Man, my pleasure, bro. I appreciate that, man, for sure.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:02:18] Now for real now, as you know, you know, these going into spaces where a lot of times folks don't get to hear a writer read his own words. And so, if you don't mind, can you introduce LONG WAY DOWN and start with a short reading from that for us?
Jason Reynolds: [00:02:31] Of course, of course. You know, first of all, before I even get into the book. To all my young folks who are in juvenile detention centers and detention facilities all over the country, uh the book was dedicated to you all. So even in the introduction, in the dedication of the book at the beginning, it says: "For all the young brothers and sisters in detention centers around the country, the ones that I've seen and the ones I haven't, you are loved."
And so this was a book written with you in mind, and something that I wanted to really sort of shine light, not just on how tough it is sometimes to make the right decisions or quote unquote, the right decisions, but how to humanize young people who find themselves with their backs against the wall.
I'm going to read just from the beginning, I think is a good place to start and set the tone. And we'll just jump into it. [Begins reading from LONG WAY DOWN] "Don't nobody believe nothing these days, which is why I haven't told nobody the story I'm about to tell you. Truth is, you probably ain't going to believe it, either. Going to think I'm lying or I'm losing it, but I'm telling you, this story is true.
It happened to me, really, it did. It so did. My name is, Will. William. William Holloman, but to my friends and people who know me know, me just Will. So call me Will. Because after I tell you what I'm about to tell you, you'll either want to be my friend or not want to be my friend at all. Either way you'll know me know me.
I'm only William to my mother and my brother, Shawn, whenever he was trying to be funny. Now I'm wishing I would've laughed more at his dumb jokes because the day before yesterday, Shawn was shot and killed. I don't know you. Don't know your last name, if you got brothers or sisters or mothers or fathers or cousins that be like brothers and sisters or aunties or uncles that be like mothers and fathers. But if the blood inside you was on the inside of someone else, you never want to see it on the outside of them. The sadness is just so hard to explain. Imagine waking up and someone, a stranger, got you strapped down, got pliers shoved into your mouth, gripping a tooth, somewhere in the back, one of the big, important ones and rips it out. Imagine the knocking in your head, the pressure pushing through your ears, the blood pooling, but the worst part, the absolute worst part is the constant slipping of your tongue into the new empty space where you know a tooth supposed to be but ain't no more. It's so hard to say, "Shawn's dead." Shawn's dead. Shawn's dead. So strange to say, so sad, but I guess not surprising, which I guess is even stranger and even sadder.
The day before yesterday, me and my friend, Tony, were outside talking about whether or not we'd get any tall now that we were 15. When Shawn was 15, he grew a foot, maybe a foot and a half. That's when he gave me all the clothes he couldn't fit. Tony kept saying he hoped he grew because even though he was the best ballplayer around here our age, he was also the shortest. And everybody knows, you can't go all the way when you're that small, unless you can really jump, like fly. And then, there were shots. And everybody ran, duck, hid, tuck themselves tight, did what we've all been trained to, pressed our lips to the pavement, and prayed the boom followed by the buzz of a bullet ain't meet us. And after the shots, me and Tony waited like we always did for the rumble to stop before picking our heads up and poking our heads out to count the bodies. This time, there was only one: Shawn." And I'll stop there.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:05:55] Mmm. Well, let's back up a little bit. Can you give a bit of a summary of LONG WAY DOWN? We know my man Will's brother, Shawn, gets murdered. Then what happens?
Jason Reynolds: [00:06:07] Yeah. Yeah. So Shawn gets murdered, but Will grows up in an environment like many of us grow up in where there's pressure, right? And that pressure comes from all sorts of different directions, and there are certain rules that one must follow: no crying, no snitching, and you always sort of seek revenge. And so now Will feels charged to do that. And so he gets his brother's gun, and he gets in an elevator because he thinks he knows who did it. And when he gets in that elevator, which is where the whole story takes place, by the way. So 90% of this book takes place in the elevator. He is met by people from his past, people that he's loved, his father, and friends. And he's happy to see them, but the only issue is each of these people are dead, and they've all been killed from gun violence. And so he's face-to-face with other victims of this thing, and they're all just having a conversation to push him, or not to push him, but just to help him figure out what decision he's going to make.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:06:58] How did you decide on the arc of the book? How did you decide on like the questions you would ask and how you will begin to develop those questions in verse?
Jason Reynolds: [00:07:07] First of all the, the original version of this book is written straight ahead, a straight-ahead prose novel. And I turned it into my agent, she was like, "Yo, the premise is sort of flawed by the form."
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:07:18] Mmh.
Jason Reynolds: [00:07:18] It just didn't work because--especially for young people, how do you expect them to believe that all this takes place in a minute, if it takes them three weeks to read it?
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:07:26] [laughter]
Jason Reynolds: [00:07:27] And so it was all about like recalibrating what I needed to do to make sure that some 14-, 15-, 16-year-old could really kind of lock down and say like, "Though, I know this is not plausible, it could be." So first I had to think about that. And then when I started to write it in verse, I mean that was my original discipline, right, I was trained in poetry. That's the channel that I came through, the tradition that I came from. You know, you get older, and then I started writing prose and novels, and that was sort of my lane. But I was trained as a poet, and so when I started to tap back into some of those tools, I started to remember that like the beauty of verse is you get to give every single word all of its power. Right? So like we, we use language so cavalierly sometimes, but the poet doesn't.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:08:07] You can't, I mean, as a poet, I mean, you just can't and what's great, though, is this feels like a 300-page novel, that it was written in prose. And I think that was one of the things I found to be a true accomplishment and a piece.
I'ma, I'ma ask this other question, man. I ain't know if I was going to ask you this, but I had this really traumatic thing that happened other day, right? So my son--his teacher started reading him, I guess it's Ghost. This is my nine-year-old son, and it f***** him up. And this is like a really sensitive kid, I mean, he crying. He came to me, he was like, "Are you going to get drunk and shoot mommy?" I was like, "What is you talking about?" And he was like, "Well, I was reading Ghost..." I was like, "Have you ever seen me hit your mom?" He was like, "Nah." I was like, "Have I ever hit you?" He was like "On the basketball court." "That don't count!" You know? And me and him talked about it, so the book gave us a opportunity to just have a real, serious conversation about, about domestic violence. And I have my answer, and I tell you what the answer was I told him to this question, but he said, "How come Jason's books so violent?"
Jason Reynolds: [00:09:08] First of all, shout out to the sensitive boys. I think it's a beautiful thing that you can provide a space for your son to be a sensitive man. And I think it's a strength, think it's a superpower to be quite frank. In terms of the books, though, why, why are they so violent? You know, the truth is, is that Ghost isn't a violent book, right? There's a violent moment in his life, but the rest of that book has nothing to do with that moment. That moment sort of informs who Ghost is and who he becomes. But who he becomes isn't his father.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:09:35] Right.
Jason Reynolds: [00:09:36] It isn't what it is, and so what I really try to do in my stories isn't sort of drill down on the violence but instead highlight the resilience of young people, highlight how we all have moments in our lives that can be a bit traumatic, and we learn how to cope, and the best of us, with the right adults in our lives and the right friends in our lives, turn it into a certain kind of fuel to do wonderful things, to be less harmful to the people around us.
What I told him, and I think your answer is much better, but I hadn't read the book, but what I told him is, you know, we write these things to create an entryway into a conversation.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:10:09] And I was like, "You know, frankly, me and you," I'm telling him, "yo, we wouldn't be having this conversation now without the book."
Jason Reynolds: [00:10:14] Yeah.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:10:14] And I was like, "You know, in the book reflects a real moment." But I struggled with that all the time is how to explain my writing to my sons. And so, I can't wait to play him this and let him hear your answer. But I will say, cause you know, he had just heard the first two pages of the book when me and him had this conversation, but then I came in his room a little while later, like, you know, two or three days later. And he was on a bed reading the book, you know, I was like, "That's what I'm talking about." You know? Cause, cause one of the things was like, how do you confront the world without running away? And how do you confront it with some sensitivity in with some perspective?
And I wonder when you think about the wisdom that Will confronts through these series of folks that he meets on the elevator, how are you thinking about how that functions in our life? What are you telling us to pay attention to?
Jason Reynolds: [00:11:02] The biggest thing was I needed to figure out how to present an argument that didn't feel like an argument. And I needed to do it in a way that wasn't didactic. Cause kids don't like to be talked down to, and kids don't really like to be taught. That's not my job. I'm not a teacher. I'm not even a parent. My job is to figure out ways to put them into situations where they can teach themselves. Right. And so, what I wanted to do was create characters that ask questions. Create characters that served almost as totems. Because nobody ever says anything. They all just ask him questions. You know, Dani shows up, and that's one of his homegirls from childhood. And all she says is like, "Well, what if you miss?" She doesn't say, "Don't do it." She's just like, "Well, how you know that this is the guy? And when you get there, what if you miss?" [laughs] Right? Just to get to your point, I wrote the book sort of with two things in mind: how would this be read as a child? And how would these be read as an adult? Because I think in this moment, I needed to put both categories of people in the hot seat. For young people, I needed them to read it and realize that they, they all will have decisions to make, and we are all being haunted, whether it be by our traumas, by our teachings, the teaching of our parents, your spiritual places, school. All of us are sort of walking around with something in our ear or lots of things, sort of in our ears all the time. And then for adults, I had to put adults in a situation and say, "Look, you know young people. What do you do when you have the fate of a child in your hands?" Because, because the decision that you make says a lot about you.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:12:29] You know, what's interesting, too, is like wildly, I almost feel like you've read it, and you start reminding yourself as, as the reader of the kind of knowledge you possess, that you don't admit to --
Jason Reynolds: [00:12:41] Right.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:12:42] --in the middle of a bad decision. You know, like I legit--when I carjacked this cat, right? And man, it in like ninth grade, I knew somebody that carjacked somebody, right? And this homeboy ran up on the car with a sawed-off, and it was an undercover cop. And the cop shot him.
And so I knew that. And yet I went out and did the same thing. And you know why I know I knew it? Because like I asked the dude that I robbed, was he a cop. And, you know, and it seems like super callous, right? But I just ain't wanna die. But the thing is, and this is what I think the book animates, is the way in which sometimes we refuse to hold the knowledge that we have. And so I feel like, you know, all of those folks come. But like all of those folks was literally a part of Will. And I think it says something about like the kind of way that trauma makes him forget who Dani is.
Jason Reynolds: [00:13:30] Exactly. And what do we, and what do we do with the anger? Look, I was a 19-year-old who had lost a few friends at that point, but I lost a close friend to murder when I was 19. And in the moment, in the moment, oh, I knew I could murder a man. In the moment. Right? I knew I could murder a man and not just murder a man, murder a man and sleep like a baby. I knew it because of the kind of anger and pain that I felt in that, in that particular instance. And if it wasn't for my guy's mom basically blocking the door and begging us to let it go, maybe I wouldn't be here. Right? Because like you said, right at that point I knew what was right and wrong. I had a certain kind of ethic, right? I knew all those kinds of things, but I also was overtaken by a trauma that no one could seem to help me with. And so amnesia becomes much easier to have when pain overtakes you and overwhelm as you. Will is not a quote-on-quote what society would label a "gangster." He's not. He's scared. But he's also in tremendous pain and under tremendous pressure, you know?
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:14:24] Well, you know, wildly though, man, um, his pops was like not really a gangster, was afraid. And what I found really touching, actually, is, uh, when his pops told him the story, because I guess the other part of it is both what we know, but I think the book also reveals how dangerous what we don't know can be. And, you know, I be telling my, my kids these stories, cause it's like, if I don't tell you these stories, then you go mess around and walk into the world not equipped to breathe when it comes time to breathe. So actually I appreciated how you framed that and how you revealed the pain of Will's father. I mean, that was, that was truly dope.
Jason Reynolds: [00:15:07] You know, I learned that in a juvie. I was in a juvie out in California some years back, and there were rival gangs in the same classroom. And I was in there talking, we having a good time, and then it came time for Q & A, but they began to talk about sort of rival crews, and how like "Yeah, old boy across the room, he from so-and-so and so-and-so, and I'm from South Side, this, that, and the third." And the teacher, the teacher was like, "You know what, let me explain what's going on to Mr. Jason here because he doesn't know, he's not from California. He don't know what's going on." He's like, "Look, my grandmother was murdered by a gang member when I was a child." Right? He said, "That's the reason I took a job at-- I grew up knowing I was going to take this job when I was very young because of what happened to me," and he said, "the reason that these gangs are beefing, these kids don't even know this, is because 50 years before they were born, there was a, in San Quentin, uh, one crew went to one guy's cell and took a pair of shoes from him and hid the shoes, and it was a practical joke. Dude took it seriously. Didn't like being embarrassed and killed the guy. And then the back and forth began. These kids don't even know!" Right that they're like-- it's this weird cycle that began over a silly moment, of--over a joke! And all these years later, they're carrying out a tradition of trauma with absolutely no clue of where it began and how it all started. And that's the reason I wrote the father that way. It's like, you have no idea. You think it's one way. We don't tell the whole truth, you know?
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:16:29] Yo, that's, that's one of the ways in which, um, this joint fits into a literary tradition that includes Hamlet, that includes The Odyssey, but also in a real way, somebody who you might connect with, cause he was sort of like a cat who was a poet and then flipped it, it's like August Wilson. And you think about King Hedley II. The homeboy's whole story's how, if you imagine your origin story is one thing and then try to act out the destination of that origin story, that's where you get tragedy.
Jason Reynolds: [00:17:02] Yeah.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:17:02] And, and, and I think that what was nice about this book, though, actually, that, that, that makes it really hopeful in a way, is you reveal what an intervention looks like. You know? And actually the book becomes not a tragedy, but it becomes, it becomes a song of hope.
Jason Reynolds: [00:17:21] Yeah.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:17:22] I actually learned something. I learned something about writing, though. And I learned something about what it means to grapple with the hard questions and, and create something that's hopeful, and so I hope the folks who, who read this hold onto that part of it.
In previous interviews, you said that you weren't much of a reader as a kid because you didn't find like, uh, many books that connected with your life or something? Can you, can you talk about the kind of reading practices that you had when you were younger and sort of how those evolved as you got a bit older?
Jason Reynolds: [00:17:53] When I was young, man, I didn't have a LONG WAY DOWN, right? I didn't have a Ghost. I was born in '83, so you're talking about basically most of the nineties, and there's a weird gap in literature, man, especially literature for young people, young Black people between like 1980 and like 1999. Now there was work being published about Black children, I mean Walter D. Meyers is the guy, but his sweet spot is the 1970s. Had I been a seventies baby, I'd have been like all good. Right? But you figure like I'm growing up in the eighties and nineties, there are, there are three major things happening in my life, right?
The crack epidemic is happening, right? My family is affected, my cousins and all of that is happening. HIV. My neighbors are dying of AIDS. I'm a 10-, 11-year-old watching this happen. And I remember, like, the pandemonium and all of the hysteria around whether or not it was airborne. I remember them putting hazmat signs on my neighbor's house. Hazmat signs! Right, like, so like, those things are sort of in there. And then there's rap music. And there's not a single book about any of those things written for young people. And so I just, uh, I just didn't didn't rock with it. It felt boring. It felt far away. It felt, um, like work, like a chore. It felt strictly for school. Um, and so I didn't do any of it.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:19:04] Where'd you go to school at?
Jason Reynolds: [00:19:05] I went to Barnaby Manor for elementary, right on Oxon Hill. And then I was supposed to go to Potomac High School. My older brother graduated in '95, and so that was the year when, like, they introduced metal detectors, that was--that's when, like all of that was changing, all that was going on, and my mom was like, "Yeah, nah." Sent me to private school.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:19:21] Yeah, I went to Walker Mill. I went to Walker Mill, and, you know, and then it's crazy because I went to Walker Mill for the magnet program, right. So I was supposed to go to Andrew Jackson, but Walker Mill had a magnet program, I went to Walker Mill, and then I went to Suitland High School. And, you know, I grew up the same time, period. I mean, I didn't--I read Walter Mosley for the first time in prison. You know, like --
Jason Reynolds: [00:19:40] Look, I be trying to tell people, look, Dwayne, I was on a call with the Prince George's County Library System. We did a whole thing, right? And one of the ladies was like, "What is it like? How do you feel? How proud are you to be from Prince George's County?" And I had to explain to her, I was like, "Listen, let me tell you something. There--the way that y'all spin a narrative around this place is interesting because if you live below exit 15, you were having a very different experience.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:20:04] Right?
Jason Reynolds: [00:20:05] Like we're having a completely different experience.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:20:07] Ain't nobody ever said, "How proud you feeling from, from PG?" I mean, I feel proud to be from PG, but, but the PG that I understand is not what you think you're proud of. You know, like the PG I know growing up, people dismiss it.
Jason Reynolds: [00:20:18] People dismiss it. The PG that Ta-Nehisi wrote about in Between The World and Me is not the PG I'm from. Right? So like this idea that like, like, I was--my mom, my mom has been a teacher, was a teacher, she's 75, retired this year. And she--we always laugh, it's like, look, there's this, this weird thing that everybody throws around: "Prince George's County has got the wealthiest Black population in America." It's like, yeah, and yet every single school, every single public school, sans one or two above exit 15 are Title One. So you explained to me how this shakes out. When I was growing up, I grew up in a working class household, in a working class family, and if you was from the Hills and the Heights, you were having a completely different experience than you if you were from Upper Marlboro or Bowie. It was completely different. If you from Walker Mill, or you went to Suitland, or you were on Swan Road--
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:21:04] I grew up on Swan road! Nah, I mean, I, like, I, I that's that's-- I grew up on Swan road, you know, honestly, man, it was not a game. And you know, what's interesting though, what I appreciate about what you just said is that when I grew up on Swan Road, no books existed. In terms of the landscape of education, including creating a reading diet for young people, that was not a part of the zeitgeist. I think we're changing this now, but sometimes I wonder if we are. Because I don't live on a small road no more.
Jason Reynolds: [00:21:35] Right.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:21:36] What do you think about that because you more hip to this than I am. What do you think about the, like, landscape of reading for young folks now, in terms of access to your books, but also Angie Thomas, I mean it's-- y'all got a crew, I'm trying to join a crew now. I--literally, I've read this stuff, and I was like, you know what, man? I'm about to try this, man ,I bought to, you know, Kwame Alexander. I'm like, I know these cats, and my kids' like, "No, you don't." And I'm like, I might have to write me a YA book, just to feel like a real writer these days.
Jason Reynolds: [00:22:03] Aw, man, please, man. You know what? I think, uh, I think it's changing. We're seeing a shift and, you know, in the neighborhood that the neighborhoods are always going to be complicated, so you don't always see it in the way, the way the neighborhoods shake down. But in those homes, man, and in those schools, you got a lot more youngins reading, man. It's happening. The other thing about like Angie and me and all of us is we, we understand the value and the currency in cool. And so it's like, look, I'm trying to make sure you know, that this the cool thing to do. So I'm going to write books that I think are cool, and y'all gonna bite down, and then y'all, when y'all do see me, when you bump into me, or when you see me on the street, and when I come to your school, you'll be surprised that I look just like you. I got all the tattoos just like you. I come from the same neighborhood. I grew up on Willow Road, have the same neighborhoods. We do same things. I'm an Alison Mall baby--
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:22:53] You said Alison Mall. This whole interview is like straight running away. Which is wild! Now us. I think we imagined things for ourselves that was like wildly absurd and talking about, you know, the possibilities, like we thought we would be somebody, even if we had no name for that thing, but I don't think I was ever in a school that imagined this conversation happening. Even being in magnet programs, like, and I think that's one of the things that your writing does is like, you create a new reality for what's possible. Cause we, like we don't even really know each other that well, but we live, you know, 15 minutes away from each other and ended up on a stage, which I think that's kind of like a, that's kind of like a magical thing, actually. I hadn't thought about it much until, until you started naming streets, you know.
Jason Reynolds: [00:23:41] I mean, I think people underestimate, look, my mother, she always is a, a thousand percent. We ain't never see our parents reading a novel, like I ain't never see my ma reading. This wasn't like an option, it wasn't like, I knew I was going to do something, but there was no path. My mother never could say, like, "I'm going to tell you how to accomplish your dreams." It was just kind of like, "Hey, you know. Work hard, Champ!" You know what I mean? "Do the best you can out there."
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:24:03] [laughs] I know. My mom was like, "Yo, don't go to jail." And then I went to jail. She's like, "I just asked you to do one thing, you know! How you messed that one up?" And I'm like, "Yo, Mom, I'ma be a poet!" She's like, "Now you done went to jail and gone crazy."
Jason Reynolds: [00:24:17] I think it's good for young people to see that and to see us and to know that like you, from wherever you're from and whoever you think you are, that we have the possibilities and the capabilities to do and to make of the world, whatever we want.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:24:32] So, so when your website, and this is actually, man, this is probably what, what really got me is on your website. You said, here's the plan. This what you do. Just don't write no boring books.
Jason Reynolds: [00:24:42] That's it.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:24:43] For me, reading was a way out of boredom. So how do you figure out what's a boring book? You know, how do you avoid that? And this is going into prisons, too, and they writing books, and I wonder the advice that you have for them in terms of how do you keep yourself from writing a boring book?
Jason Reynolds: [00:24:58] Look. You think about the mediums of storytelling that always work, right? Like movies. Right? You think about movies, bro, there's a way that they write movies where after the second, second or third page, something gotta happen. Right. They use the hook method. It's important. That's the reason why your son read the first few pages of Ghost and was like, "Whoa, this is a lot," and why you caught him in the room, reading the rest of it. It's all very intentional. Right? It's all very intentional because I know who I'm writing for. I know writers, we have this thing that we all do, where we say like, "Oh, I write for myself. I write--" this is like a thing that writers love, this is like, a, it's like, this is like writing. It's like, there's like a thing we keep in the hip pocket. It's like, "Who do you write for?" "I write for me. I write for me." Right? The stakes are too high for that. I write for children, right, and because I know that I'm writing for children, I have to know who they are and where they are at this moment in their lives. And where they are is in a space, where attention spans are very, very short. So you better get them quick! And you know this. You work around kids. If you can't figure out how to get them in the first five minutes, good luck trying to, trying to wrangle them back in.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:26:00] Yeah. We once, um. Me and my man coached the basketball team, we coached our kids on the basketball team, and, you know, I'd be doing like ignorant s***, like giving children books instead of awards at the end of the basketball season.
Jason Reynolds: [00:26:11] [laughter]
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:26:11] So, like, we bought every one of your books that was in the store. So it was like Ghost, it was Patina. It was LONG WAY DOWN. It was like, Look Both Ways. We just had a stack of your books, and we come back to the house. Show them the books. They like "Yo, I've read that!" "Oh man, you got the Jason Reynolds book? Oh, I've read that one." And then I give somebody one that they already read, and then they trading them, and it was like a beautiful thing to see. And I thought for me, what that moment reflected is, um, is when you put these books that aren't boring in the hands of young people, yo, they, they resonate, and the kids read them. The thing that I'm, I'm amazed at in terms of thinking about your work and thinking about your success is that I hope it gives you a level of comfort in the ability to just understand that like your life has value. And I felt like in LONG WAY DOWN, one of the things that the book makes an argument for is Will's life mattering. And that's like some subtle s***, you know, that's not, never really explicitly said, but when you get to the end, if you don't feel like Will's life matters, like, like you missed the point. And so I, I thank you for that, man, cause, uh, cause I think it's important for these young folks to--it's important for all of us, to recognize that, you know, our lives have value.
I'm gonna close it out, man. We always ask one question to close this thing out. We're going to take it back to Maryland. This, this whole show is PG to me. You know what I mean? We're going to take it straight back to Maryland, and Frederick Douglas, he said that, uh, "When we read, we become forever free." What does that mean to you? How do you think about the relationship between reading and freedom?
Jason Reynolds: [00:27:47] You know what, man, for me, Dwayne, and this is something that I think about every single day. We only have 26 letters to work with in the English language. 26 letters, right? And with those 26 letters, somebody including us every now and then, we figure out how to arrange them in a sequence that can cast spell. Right? Think about that! It's literally us manipulating and maneuvering 26 letters into different arrangements, patterns, and sequences that might just liberate somebody. What an amazing thing to think about, and so, when I think about reading is the thing that, that, that, that, that is freeing and that sets people free, what I always am thinking about is how magnificent and how overwhelming it is that it's just a manipulation of 26 letters arranged into certain codes that does it.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:28:45] I mean, that is such a profound way to think about what language does, what literature does, what the ability to intentionally communicate does. Man, thank you again for your time. I can't thank you enough. You know, this, this project is, is like a big deal to me, but, but the truth is the reason why the project is a big deal is because it's probably one of the first times in my life, around the world of literature and writing that I could do something that I know fundamentally isn't about making myself look better. You know, being able to like put your book in people's hands and not even know them. But, but know that I had a hand in what's going to happen when, when they open those pages, it's just a beautiful and humbling thing. And I guess it is ultimately a testament to the magic of 26 letters, arranged in a way to say something ill, you know.
Jason Reynolds: [00:29:30] I say appreciate you, fam. You a gift, man. Thank you so much for having me.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: [00:29:36] Thanks for joining us for The Freedom Takes, a new podcast from The Million Book Project. We'll be back next time with another contemporary writer. You can find out more about The Million Book Project and subscribe to our newsletter at law.yale.edu backslash justice dash collaboratory.
Our initiative was made possible by a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This podcast was produced by Erin Slomski-Pritz with theme music by Reed Turchi. Research for this episode was done by Thaddeus Talbot. Production assistance was provided by Elsa Hardy, Tess Wheelwright, and Molly Unger.