There was a moment during Jason Reynolds’ meteoric rise as a young adult author and poet when he turned his back on newfound fame in New York City and moved to be near the quiet suburbs of Prince George’s County, Maryland, where he grew up. The decision came after the success of his 2014 YA novel When I Was the Greatest.

“My mother turned 70, and that was enough for me,” says Reynolds, who had already been named a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature. “I love New York but not more than [I love] my mother, and I’d already sacrificed enough time away from my family. So I left.”

As a major figure in the literary world, Reynolds—who is currently working on his fourteenth book—unapologetically creates for young Black readers. From a teen reeling after witnessing his brother’s murder to two citified brothers spending a summer with their blind grandfather in Virginia, Reynolds’ characters speak directly to our community. He’s even added a Marvel comic novel to his canon with Miles Morales: Spider-Man.

“Who else is there to write for, as far as I’m concerned,” he says of his commitment to telling stories of Black youth. “I’d rather go ahead and tap into these kids, who still are malleable, but who also have insight into things that we don’t know, with vision that we no longer have; who have imaginations that have already been zapped from us.”

Reynolds’ desire to use his voice in this way nearly escaped his reach when he first started out. In 2005, he had no idea how to pitch a book. “I ran around New York City, running into publishing companies or trying to, but getting stopped at security gates,” he remembers.

And even when he acquired a new agent in 2012, Reynolds says publisher after publisher turned down his tome. They didn’t believe readers would care about tales centered on Black kids. The rejection only made him hungrier. “I’m going to make sure no one will ever say no to me again. This is how I’m built,” he says now of his steadfast productivity.

“I’m just here to bear witness to their lives, because I believe that it is in bearing witness that everything is made real.”

In his latest work, Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks (Antheneum/ Caitlyn Dlouhy, $17.99), Reynolds gives us glimpses of middle school life by zooming in on a handful of streets as he follows students home from school. The award-winning writer explains that his work speaks mostly to middle school students, because that was a pivotal time in his own life.

Having skipped the second grade, he was always the youngest in his class. As a preteen, he was also dealing with his parents’ split and his enrollment in private school because his mother “thought it would save my life,” he says.

From the page, he now hopes to speak to young Black readers who might be going through their own defining experiences. “I love these kids,” Reynolds says. “I’m just here to bear witness to their lives, because I believe that it is in bearing witness that everything is made real.”

This interview originally appeared in the latest issue of ESSENCE magazine, available on newsstands now.

Works by Jason Reynolds

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