Dolan students hear from YA author for Black History Month
STAMFORD — When author Jason Reynolds was growing up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, his teachers were always trying to get him to read classic literature: “Lord of the Flies,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “Moby Dick.”
But Reynolds wasn’t interested. In fact, he didn’t read a novel for the first time until he was 17, despite his teachers encouraging him to develop a relationship with literature.
“I know what it means to fight for my life,” Reynolds said. “I know what it’s like to watch my family fight for their lives. (These books), they’re going to get it wrong ... (the characters), they don’t look like me. They don’t walk like me. They don’t talk like me. ... Why would I want a relationship with something that doesn’t want a relationship with me? I didn’t see myself in literature.”
Instead, Reynolds turned to rap music. The first rap tape he ever owned, “Black Reign” by Queen Latifah, inspired him to start writing his own poetry which he called his “King Latifah poems.” In them, he described losing friends to gun violence, gang violence and drunk driving. He wrote about his family members battling cancer, addiction and depression. All of this was when he was still a teenager.
It wasn’t until college that Reynolds began reading after discovering “Black Boy” by Richard Wright.
From there, his love of literature and writing took off and he published his first book in 2008 after finishing college. He has gone on to write multiple novels and poetry collections for young adults and middle school students, including the “Track” series, “Long Way Down,” which is written in verse, and “Miles Morales: Spider-Man,” based off the Marvel Comics character. He is a Newberry Award honoree, an NAACP Image Award Winner and has won multiple Coretta Scott King honors and his book “Ghost” was a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature.
Reynolds told his story about how he went from disinterested reader to an award-winning young adult and middle grade writer to Dolan Middle School students via a Skype call Wednesday. He explained the process of finding his voice and writing literature based on his own life, breaking many writing rules along the way as he wrote the kind of stories he needed when he was young.
“I wrote about all of my friends, my family members, my neighborhood,” he told students. “All your life, you’ll have people who convince you you’re not enough. ... Never forget everything that makes them mad are the things that make music. ... Your story, it’s the only thing you own.”
The call was a cap-off to the school’s celebration of Black History Month. Much of Reynolds work, which is also noted for its unique style and voice, features young black characters, representing a version of himself he didn’t see in literature growing up.
“Today marks a celebration of black history and literature,” said Dolan Prinicpal Charmaine Tourse. “Jason Reynolds is an example for a history maker for all races, cultures and religion.”
Reynolds’ Skype visit was made possible through DonorsChoose.org and the Dolan Parent-Teacher Organization. Media specialist Jenna Cinelli and support specialist Kristen Corbi-Miller were the ones who came up with the idea to have Reynolds speak to students.
“I am a huge fan of his work because it speaks to our students,” Cinelli said. “I really wanted our students to hear from him, listen to him and be inspired by him.”
Through fundraising, all English classes were given copies of some of Reynolds’ books and did related activities leading up to the conversation. After hearing Reynolds’ speak, many students were also given the opportunity to ask him about his favorite books, music and his writing process.
“We really are looking for ways to inspire our students to read and explore writing,” Corbi-Miller said. “We want them to be motivated by someone who has a similar story or whose writing looks different from other books in school.”
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