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Wisdom From YA Authors on Leaving Home: Jason Reynolds


Throughout August, we'll bring you stories and advice from authors who have written for young people about that pivotal moment where they've left home and set out on their own. It's a series we call Next Chapter. Today, we hear from Jason Reynolds. He's the author of "All American Boys" and "When I Was The Greatest." And he describes his work this way.

JASON REYNOLDS: They're slice-of-life stories typically revolving around African-American teenagers, specifically in urban environments.

CHANG: Reynolds spent his childhood in Washington, D.C. And as he approached that moment of leaving home, it felt like the world around him was in turmoil.


TUPAC SHAKUR: (Rapping) It's sad 'cause I bet Brenda doesn't even know just 'cause you're in the ghetto doesn't mean you can't grow.

REYNOLDS: Growing up in the '80s and then the early '90s was a tricky time, especially if you were a kid of color because what was happening in - during that sort of era with the crack epidemic and gangs, HIV and AIDS, there wasn't much literature being written to depict those times, especially for young people.

There were no books about your neighborhood being addicted to this specific drug. There were no books written in your language about what it was like to see your friends or your family members suddenly lose 200 pounds and slip away from you from something that nobody had any idea what it was or where it was coming from. So hip-hop, they would - I always tell people the rappers of that time period were the YA authors for us. They were telling our stories.


SHAKUR: (Rapping) Brenda wants to run away. Mama say you're making me lose pay. There's social workers here every day. Now Brenda's got to...

REYNOLDS: So how it all started for me was me reading rap lyrics. I would go to the store, I would buy cassette tapes, and I would read the liner notes and sort of subconsciously creating the connections between the rappers that I was reading and the poets that they were teaching us in school. Saying that, like, Queen Latifah and Maya Angelou were more alike than they were different, and Tupac and Langston Hughes were more alike than they were different. And so poetry was my entryway.


QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) I hit the bottom. There ain't nowhere else to go but up. Bad days at work give you an attitude and you erupt.

REYNOLDS: It was when I left home to go to college, and then it was when I left college to go to New York. I packed my clothes in trash bags and moved to Brooklyn.


QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) Get funky with it.

REYNOLDS: Everything was about sort of making sure that my mom was pleased about what I had done with my life. But in Brooklyn, I got to cut loose and say to myself, look, this is my shot. I'm going to shoot my shot. You know, we ate peanut butter out of the jar and tuna fish, and we did whatever we could to sort of survive. And on the flip side, I felt like I was living the life I was supposed to be living, the most authentic life that I had lived thus far.

Be not afraid of discomfort. If you can't put yourself in a situation where you are uncomfortable then you will never grow. You will never change. You'll never learn. And I think for me, the discomfort of drowning is what taught me to swim.

And furthermore, I think that for all the young people out there, the one thing that I learned that I still hold on to every day of my life as I work as an artist is that it's always going to be process before progress. It takes work. It takes humility. It takes confidence. It takes agency and urgency. And it takes a little bit of luck sometimes, too.


LAURYN HILL: (Singing) Let's love ourselves, and we can't fail.

CHANG: That was Jason Reynolds. His new book, "Ghost," will be out later this month. We've been hearing music from Tupac, Queen Latifah and Lauryn Hill picked by Mr. Reynolds. He's part of our series Next Chapter.


HILL: (Singing) Let me tell you that everything is everything. Everything is everything. After winter must come spring. Everything is everything. Everything is everything. What is meant to be will be. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.