A rather large, magnificent being who seems to be so tall his god-given dreads graze against the clouds as he takes long strides along the streets of Decatur, author Jason Reynolds is, quite frankly, one of the most inspiring and talented creatives of this era. Holding several awards for his books (including the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent), Jason’s presence as an artist is equally impressive, regardless of his height.
Reynolds was in town to introduce readers to his latest book “Ghost” at the AJC Decatur Book Festival during Labor Day weekend. With a provoking point of view and unorthodox subject matter, “Ghost” is just as invigorating as a read as its author is a creative visionary. We got a chance to talk to Reynolds before he took the stage.
Q: What was your inspiration for your latest book, “Ghost?”
A: There were a few things. I was approached first by a company who wanted me to write a sports series, but they wanted me to do basketball, and I just feel like when it comes to black kids, we do more than play basketball. Like it’s always “Can you write a story about a basketball player or some kids on a basketball court?” And I was just kinda like “Eh…” Been there, done that. We’ve done that already. And I wanted to delve into something a little differently, and I felt like track would be cool because so many of us are dealing with the concept of running, whether it’s running away from something, running towards something, running your family. All of these ways that we run things or run from things or run with things. I wanted to explore that in the books. So this kid, Castle Cranshaw who calls himself Ghost, has experienced trauma and his trauma has led him to the track and he’s just trying to figure out how to place or put this running that he found out he can naturally do by running from his traumatic experience.
Q: What suggestions do you have for teen artists and writers who want to create more characters and themes of color?
A: One thing that I wasn’t taught in school or as a young person that I wish I would’ve known is that there’s value in who I already was. So like everyone’s like “What are you gonna do when you get older? What are you gonna do when you grow up?”, but no one ever says, “What are you gonna do today? Who are you right now?” Because the thing and the person you are right now is where the magic is. And so if you look around Atlanta, right? Atlanta is a cultural hub right now around the country and parts of the world. I just got back from Paris and in Paris they’re all doing the same dances that y’all have created in Atlanta, Georgia. They’re listening to your music. It’s all the same.
And so if you all know that, then all you have to do is be as honest and sincere as possible with who you are and put that on a page, put that on a stage, put that in a song. You don’t have to be nobody other than who you already are at 16, at 17, because that’s where the gold is. And the whole world knows it, but y’all. And so my job is to make sure that this language we speak, that everybody says is improper, is ours and that’s where the gold is. It’s sincere. So I just always encourage you all, when it comes to making your art, be as honest about who you are at the time.
Q: How did it feel to be surrounded by people who understood your artistry and could vibe with you constantly?
A: Heaven. Yo, it was crazy. I moved to New York when I was 20. I had nothing. No money, no job. I had a bag of clothes, a mattress, and I was crashing at this apartment. Everyone around me were like these 19, 20 year old artists. We would have these big parties at my house and everyone would bring something to drink, or some ramen noodles, or a sandwich from la bodega and we’d just sit around and people would just work on their stuff. We had musicians, painters, writers, and your friends on the block would be dancers.
And everybody would just be in one space trying to figure out 1) how we could get better and 2) how we could work together to get to the place, to get this thing. I don’t miss the struggle of that but I miss the moments we shared.
Twenty-one-year-old kids who were just like, “Yo, I’m going to be the best at whatever I’m doing and I’m going to work real, real hard right now and I’m around other people who believe that I can do that.” We all need is community, right? Because, sometimes we operate in these weird vacuums and sometimes you need another writer, artist, or musician to say, “Yo, let me read it.” And that’s enough to encourage you to work a little harder. It meant the world to me and I don’t know if I would’ve made it had I not been in Brooklyn at that time with other artists.
Q: What do you want teens to receive from “Ghost?”
A: I’ve never wanted to teach lessons. I never wanted to talk down to teenagers. I’m not here to teach you anything. All I want to do is create stories, specifically in this story, where you can read it and be like, “Yo, he looks like me, sounds like me, he’s dealing with some things that I may be dealing with, whether that’s fear or anger or trauma, and just feel safe and comfortable with somebody who’s similar to me.” That’s it. I’m not here to say “Don’t do this” or “Do this.” I’m just here to say: Look in the mirror and see yourself, and see that you’re not alone. That’s all.
Above photo is a screenshot from the DBF video story produced by VOX videographers Mikael Trench, Maya Martin and Holyn Thigpen. You can view our video interview with Jason Reynolds and other YA authors at the AJC Decatur Book Festival by clicking here.