WATSON -- When Amanda Jones kept hearing the word “boogers,” she knew her students were reading.
That word is one of the first to appear in “Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks,” a young adult novel written by bestselling author Jason Reynolds.
As part of his virtual visit with Live Oak Middle, Reynolds sent a copy of “Look Both Ways” to every student and faculty member at the school — around 700 books, all beginning with the phrase “Water Booger Bears.”
But Jones wasn’t grossed out when she kept hearing that word. Instead, she was encouraged.
“That’s how I knew they had all started reading it,” she said. “Because when we passed it out, I could hear the word ‘boogers’ every time I walked up and down the hall. They were all talking about boogers.”
Though he spoke briefly on those “nasty, half-baked goblins” found in one’s nose, Reynolds talked about a much wider range of topics during a 45-minute Zoom session with Live Oak Middle in December.
An author of more than a dozen books and winner of multiple awards, Reynolds was named this year’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a recognition given by the Library of Congress.
The National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature is an initiative of the Library of Congress, in partnership with Every Child a Reader and the Children's Book Council, with support from Dollar General Literacy Foundation.
For his two-year term as National Ambassador, Reynolds is touring small towns across the country to engage in meaningful discussions with young people. Live Oak Middle was one of seven schools across the country to receive a visit, selected from nearly 200 proposals submitted last spring.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Reynolds has had to modify his speaking engagements to an all-virtual format.
Not that the adjustment bothered those at Live Oak Middle, who leaned forward in their desks as Reynolds delved into an engaging, enlightening, and at times humorous discussion. The chat was streamed in all of the school’s classrooms, giving the entire student body a chance to catch Reynolds’ “GRAB THE MIC: Tell Your Story” platform.
With assistance from students Jayse Calixte and Meridia McGhee, Jones asked Reynolds a series of questions that touched on his start in writing, what life has been like during the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and what he hopes to accomplish during his time as National Ambassador.
Reynolds — never one to leave young people out of the conversation — also asked questions of the students, with inquiries pertaining to life in Livingston Parish, what video games they enjoy, and the cuisine of south Louisiana.
Throughout the conversation, Reynolds encouraged students to never shy away from sharing their own stories — the good and the bad — with themselves, each other, and the world.
“All the things in our lives that make it complicated also make us brilliant,” Reynolds said.
Below are answers to some of the questions Reynolds fielded during his chat.
(Editor’s Note: Some of the questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.)
What can you tell kids at home about how to share their stories and why it’s important to share stories?
“The moment that I was able to share my story, my whole life changed. So many of us have been raised to believe that we should be ashamed of our stories because not every story is pretty. Most of our stories can be a little complicated, but that’s okay. Nobody likes to watch a movie where everything is good. That’s a boring movie.
“Ultimately, there has to be something in it that’s a little complicated for you to have a good story to tell. So there’s no reason to feel small, because our lives can be complicated sometimes. We have all kinds of things that complicate our lives but make our lives beautiful at the same time. It’s important for young people to know that.
“Sharing your story is a powerful thing and it can be empowering for you and other people. But I’m also careful because sometimes you’re not ready to share your story, and that’s okay, too. And you don’t have to share it with everybody. Sometimes sharing it with your best friend is a wonderful thing. Sometimes just sharing it with yourself, writing down what’s really happening in your life is a good thing for you, because we’re good at running away from ourselves and our stories.
“Sometimes writing it down and telling you the truth about who you are and where you are in your life is a powerful thing. It can be a big thing or a small thing, but ultimately, it’s more about acknowledging you have a story to tell.”
What’s been the biggest challenge being home during the pandemic?
“You know what, Zoom is wild. I’m glad we have it because it’s keeping us connected, but you don’t realize how much energy it takes to try to connect with a human being through the screen. And the wild part is we all do this everyday and think we’re connecting through social media, but now that we are forced to actually truly connect through a screen, we realize how difficult it is.
“That being said, there are people who are having a tougher time than I am. Yeah, quarantine is tough. I haven’t hugged my mom since March. That’s heartbreaking. But I’m in my house, and my house is better than the house I grew up in. I don’t want to complain too much because there are other people having a tougher time. I just know that we’ll get through it.”
When did your professional career as a writer start?
“I don’t know if I’m professional yet. Do I seem professional to you?
“Well, it technically started when I was 21 and ended up getting a publishing deal, my first big publishing contract. I had no idea what that meant. I had never heard of young adult literature. I was just trying to do my thing.
“That was the beginning of it, but it didn’t go well. It took me three or four years to write the book. The book came out and nobody bought the book. I think I sold like six copies. My mom bought like four. Nobody bought the book and they wouldn’t publish anything else from me.
“Fast forward 10 years, and “When I was the Greatest” came out, and then my life changed. That was the true beginning of my career as a writer. There was a weird 10-year gap for me to get here. Sometimes these things take time.”
When did you start writing for yourself?
“When I was young, maybe 10 years old, I started to lose people. I was a young person who experienced a lot of death early in life. When you’re going through that kind of thing… you need ways to cope. You have to put it somewhere. So first it was, “How can I make my mom feel better?” So I wrote a poem for her. I started to write poetry because I was a rap music kid. My brothers had all these rap tapes, and I’d read the lyrics, and that’s how I fell into poetry.
“So when people started to die, I started to write poems to make my family members feel better and to make myself feel better. It was a good thing to have because from 10 to 18, life was really complicated. A lot of things were happening in my family and in my neighborhood that were hard, and I needed to figure out where I was gonna put all these emotions.
“You’re a young man, and everyone around you tells you that boys ain’t supposed to cry, and it’s like, ‘I’m a human being. I’m not an alien. Why can’t I cry and why is it against the rules to cry?’ Because of that kind of pressure, at least I had the poetry and the writing to put my emotions down on paper.
“But I don’t think I write for me now. The truth is I couldn’t write for you by writing for me. In order for me to understand your life and want to write for your life, I have to be thinking about you. I’m old, so if I’m writing for me, the books are gonna be ridiculous and way outside of anything you’re interested in. I’d be writing about mortgage and car insurance and why the price of fish has gone up.
“I’ve always written with other people in mind.”
What’s your favorite part of being an author?
“This is probably the best part. Being an author is really cool, but it’s only cool if you know people actually care about what you wrote. It’s a lot of hard work to sit down and write, and you just hope people care about what you made and that somebody somewhere is gonna read it and find something that they like in it, and just maybe you might get to meet them one day. This is the sweetest part of all.
“I tell everybody the best part about writing is when it’s over. It’s hard. I talk to young people in school all the time and they tell me how hard it is to write, and I try to explain to them it’s hard for me too, and I’m what they call a professional, and I still struggle with writing. Who knows how to use commas? Not me. And what would we do without spell check? It’s difficult for all of us, but it doesn’t mean you can’t get better if you practice.”
Who was your favorite author when you were growing up?
“Oh I didn’t read when I was growing up, so I didn’t have a favorite author. I wish I did. I have so much respect for y’all because y’all have favorite authors. When I was a kid, my favorite author was Tupac and Queen Latifah and Biggie. They were the ones we looked to to tell stories.
“It’s not like your generation when you can turn around on a shelf and see all these beautiful books behind you. I didn’t find a favorite author until I was an adult. I had favorite athletes and actors and musicians, but no favorite authors. It was a shame.”
Have you ever had one of your books banned from the library, and what do you think about people banning and censoring books?
“I’ve had quite a few of my books banned. “All-American Boys” has been banned; “When I Was the Greatest” has been banned; “Stamped” has been banned. I’m sure somebody’s banned “Long Way Down.” Of course it happens.
“How do I feel? Angry. I know there are people out there who think once your book is banned, that’s cool. But no, because what’s really happening is adults are getting in the way. Now I have the utmost respect for how everyone is raising their kids, but when you ban a book, what you’re really saying is that our young people don’t have the capacity to handle the world that they live in. But the thing is, I’m not writing anything they don’t already know.
“For me, I feel like banning a book is to basically sleep on these kids and say, ‘Our babies aren’t as brilliant as we claim them to be,’ and really they are. They’re brilliant young people who will step up to the plate and have complicated conversations if you’re willing to lean into those conversations with them. You can’t run away from the world. They already live in it, and most of it they already know.”
With everything that’s been happening with protesting and Black Lives Matter, has that affected how you’re writing now or in the future?
“No. One, because I’ve already done it. “All-American Boys” is about that very issue. “Stamped” is about that very issue.
“And two, because my life is bigger than the protests. Our lives are bigger than the protests. It doesn’t mean that those protests aren’t important. They are. They’re a part of our lives and part of American culture and American history. They always have been. Our country is built on protests.
“But I live a whole life. I live a life that is full of laughter and video games and thinking about what new things I want to try. So yeah, there is the protesting, and I spend my time fighting that good fight. But I’m a whole person. So I think my job is to show young people as whole people, not as symbols or hashtags or as warriors and heroes, but as human. That’s it. I’m gonna keep doing what I’ve been doing, which is loving y’all through representation.”
In your story “Look Both Ways,’ why is the first story about boogers?
“The question is: When you read that, did it make you wanna keep reading? If the answer is yes, then that’s why the story is about boogers.
“In the book ‘As Brave as You,’ the first word of the book is ‘poop.’ The reason why is because those words do something to you, and you never see that kind of language in books. I really have to write things that draw y’all in.”