With clear language and bracing honesty, Jason Reynolds’s young-adult novels grapple with thorny issues (alcohol abuse, gun violence, police brutality) in contemporary urban settings, offering a subset of readers a literary mirror they’ve never had before. Last fall, the D.C.-born writer tackled a new form—the novel in verse—with Long Way Down, which follows Will, a 15-year-old boy dealing with the shooting death of his brother. The book hit the New York Times best-seller list and was a National Book Award finalist. Reynolds followed up this spring with the poem “For Every One” and the middle-school-age novel Sunny.
Fast Company: You’ve said that you draw from real life in creating your characters. Who inspired Will?
Jason Reynolds: When I was 19, I lost a dear friend to murder. The pain was so heavy, I was certain that I could have taken a life and been okay with it. I think that America has a tough time speaking about anger honestly, and young people don’t know how to relate to their anger in a healthy way. If it wasn’t for my buddy’s mother begging us to leave it alone, I’m not sure I’d be talking to you right now.
FC: How do you know what will resonate with younger readers?
JR: It’s dangerous for adults to feel like they can speak for young people if they’ve never spoken to young people. The other side is that you have to be able to listen—to ask them the right questions, [ones] that may be a bit uncomfortable. And to listen [not just] to their answers, but to what they aren’t telling you.
FC: Do you feel any pressure for your novels to reflect the current political climate?
JR: My job is to illuminate that which is perennial in our country, whether it’s poverty, racism, sexism, anger, pain, trauma, love, fear, happiness, or marginalization. If I’m writing honest work, young people will be able to read a story and then make the connection to the current political climate. That’s far more important: How can we teach our young people how to think and not what to think?
Jason Reynolds is No. 40 on the 2018 Most Creative People in Business list. Check out all 100 people here.