Jason Reynolds, author of bestselling books like the young adult “Long Way Down,” and the middle-grade Track series, bookended his presentation at Shenandoah University’s Children’s Literature Conference (CLC) in June with an anecdote about an airplane passenger and a snack-sized bag of chips, and how kids are like that bag of chips.
In a presentation that abounded with pointed humor, Reynolds described a first-class plane trip, in which the passenger beside him was so wrapped up in his work on his iPad that he couldn’t be bothered to look at a bag of chips he tried to open. He self-importantly focused so hard on his screen that he never looked down to see that the bag was perforated and could be easily opened, if he had only paid attention. Instead, the frustrated passenger crammed the unopened package into the pouch in front of his seat.
As Reynolds concluded, he told the conference’s audience of teachers and librarians that they should also look at “the bag,” which for them, is a child. He advised them to take a moment, to take a breath, to look at the bag and see “that it was made for you to open.” Children are dying to share of themselves, and will do so, when they’re approached with respect and care.
An Unexpected Epiphany
That attitude, or the needed viewpoint, was one that became clear to him as he watched a TV talk show with his mother at her Washington, D.C.-area home, he said. It was a show he didn’t want to watch, which amused his knowing mom, and he fumed with sympathetic indignation as three women were told how to deepen their love with their new boyfriends by doing three things: embarrassing themselves, creating an inside joke with their boyfriends, and profusely thanking the men.
Still, the show, which he called “the most sexist television show of all time,” provided him with the insight needed to perhaps answer a question he’s always asked: Why do his books resonate they way they do?
Working with Humility
He realized the show was, through a lens of basic humanity, actually about practicing humility, intimacy and gratitude. When considering his work, he said he approaches the page with humility, and with the understanding that young people know things he doesn’t know. He also understands that his characters, which reflect his readers, are looking for ways to exercise their humility, so they “don’t have to be afraid to be afraid.”
Sharing a Language
Intimacy, he said, is a shared language. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, hip hop was a lifesaver for him. It illuminated his life, in the same way the music of The Beatles and Bob Dylan affected young people in the 1960s. “It is tethered to my chemical coding at this point,” and it allows him to speak in a language that’s connected to youth culture today. He also incorporates things like text messages into his books, which his publishers have advised against, because it will “date” the work. That doesn’t bother Reynolds though. He’s in it to connect with today’s readers.
“I’m not interested in writing a timeless book,” he said to a packed Stimpson Auditorium in Halpin-Harrison Hall. “If you all are still teaching ‘Ghost’ in 40 years, we’ve all failed,” he said, because language is always changing, as is the world.
He said he thinks it’s more important to ask, “Can ‘Ghost’ shift a culture now, so that they [young readers] can make things that last forever?”
Once a child reads a work and says to themselves, “This sounds just like me,” they can then “go back and read Hemingway,” Reynolds added.
Offering Thanks and Paying Attention
As for how gratitude plays into his work, it’s what it’s about, in many ways. “These are thank-you notes,” to young people, he said. “I’m not teaching any lessons.”
Instead, his goal to show young people as they really are, and their struggles, triumphs, laugher, fears, friends, futures, dreams, and ability to responsible and irresponsible. He shows that young people are whole beings “with whole worlds within them.”
While he came to these conclusions as he attempted to answer the question he had often heard about his work, he said perhaps the question the audience should ask is: “Why can’t I engage with my children?”
When was the last time, he asked attendees, that they exercised humility by admitting to a mistake or just listening to a child, without needing to “fix” them? His mother, he noted, is a special education teacher, and sometimes, all she needed to do to forge a relationship with a child was to ask, “What’s the matter?”
Adults also often think they’re deserving of respect or gratitude without giving it, he said. “When was the last time you thanked a child?”
Layers of Meaning
As Reynolds’ view of his work and writing for young people is multilayered, so is one educator’s understanding of the CLC, which drew approximately 300 teachers and librarians to the university from June 25 through June 29.
“The Shenandoah University Children’s Literature Conference is about more than books and teaching strategies,” said Penny Hagerty, a literacy specialist at Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville, Virginia. “It is a reflection of who we are as teachers, readers and people. It is a reflection of who we want to become and who we want our students to become.”
The CLC is doing its best to help those students become readers, through not only its very existence, but also through fun community events offered during the conference week. It sponsored a Rockin’ the Library party at The Handley Library in Winchester on the afternoon of June 25. The event featured CLC presenters and author-illustrators Matthew Holm, Ryan T. Higgins and Loren Long, cupcakes and free books, and was the library’s largest event of the year.
On June 28 at the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum, CLC presenter/author Jess Keating hosted a workshop on learning from the world’s most adorable creatures, and CLC presenter/illustrator Elizabeth Zunon led a recycling/makers workshop focusing on creating something beautiful out of a plastic bag instead of sending it to the landfill. Professor of Education, Director of Children’s Literature Program, & Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Karen Huff, Ed.D., said 180 people turned out for the Discovery Museum event.
The 33rd annual conference, “We Are What We Read — Fueled By Books | Connected By Stories | Empowered By Words,” which concluded with a presentation by two-time Newbery Medal winner Lois Lowry (“The Giver, “Number the Stars”) also featured Laurie Halse Anderson; Newbery Medal winners Matt De La Peña, Katherine Applegate and Linda Sue Park; Meg Medina; Angela Dominguez; Tom Angleberger; Laurie Ann Thompson; and John Schumacher (AKA Mr. Schu).
“Continuity among the authors’ keynote speeches was uncanny,” Dr. Huff said. “Each speaker discussed ways their books, as well as books by other authors, can offer multiple points of view, which can go a long way in developing empathy and compassion for others. Breakout sessions conducted by master educators from various school systems and universities discussed the importance of teaching reading and writing skills while at the same time putting books into children’s hands that engage, motivate and inspire students to think beyond the book, consider multiple perspectives and possibly take action to create change in their schools, communities and the world. Teachers and librarians left the conference overflowing with books and ideas to continue their work.”