Kia Chenelle; Simon and Schuster
Isabella Biedenharn
November 03, 2017 AT 02:29 PM EDT

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His long hair in dreadlocks, his tattoos unfurling beneath a fashionable T-shirt, Jason Reynolds strides into a vegetarian restaurant in the West Village. His presence is so magnetic — crackling with intensity and wit — that it’s easy to see how he can step into classrooms, like he does every week, and hold kids spellbound.

In between discussions about leaving New York (the 33-year-old recently moved from Brooklyn to D.C., where he was raised) and the literary genius of hip-hop artists like Queen Latifah and Tupac, he recounts what school visits are like. At a recent one, a young boy approached him and said, “Yo, I’m not gonna lie to you, man. I didn’t even know that authors could wear leather jackets.”

Reynolds is used to reactions like this. “To them, I represent possibility,” he explains. “It matters that all I have on is a short-sleeved shirt. It matters [that kids say], ‘Oh, he’s got tattoos?’ Yes, I look like your favorite rapper. Now you know there are other options—that reading and writing can be cool in a very real way.”

It also matters that Reynolds’ novels are some of the best reads for young people today, shedding light on the struggles — and triumphs — of kids in communities long ignored in literature except by writers like Walter Dean Myers (Monster), a mentor to Reynolds before his 2014 death. In fact, it was Myers’ son Chris, a close friend, who suggested he try writing YA when Reynolds’ dream career in poetry wasn’t taking off.

So he wrote his first novel, When I Was the Greatest, before and after his shifts at SoHo clothing store Rag & Bone in 2012, and it was published to acclaim in 2014. “I had never written anything in my own voice,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘You mean to tell me I can put my natural voice on the page, the one everybody has called improper English, and it’ll give texture and authenticity to the story? I didn’t know.’ ”

Fast-forward three years and Reynolds’ books have found their way into classrooms and onto award ballots and the New York Times best-seller list. Impressively, his early success came even without the help of organizations like We Need Diverse Books, which was started in 2014 to help make diverse protagonists, authors, and stories a priority in the landscape of young peoples’ literature.

Reynolds attributes his initial rise more to the constant public support he received from established authors. “Jackie Woodson, Christopher Myers, Rita Williams Garcia, Laurie Halse Anderson, Sharon Draper — all the big dogs of the industry were basically carving out a space for me by constantly saying my name,” he says. “Everyone was afraid I’d slip through the cracks, so it was this constant pumping of my name, my name, my name. ‘There’s this kid, there’s this kid coming. Watch him, watch him, watch him.'”

Of course, when We Need Diverse Books did come along in 2014, the organization became a natural ally for Reynolds and his work. “By the time the diversity push even started, I had already sold three or four books,” Reynolds explains. “So then it was about me becoming a proponent to continue to perpetuate the movement.”

“I’m always going to be an advocate for and support the work they do. And I’m grateful for them, because once they did come in, they also helped to make sure, ‘Yo, Jason Reynolds needs to be on solid ground. Let’s do everything we can do ensure that as many people as possible know this person is in existence and he’s working very hard for our children, to tell stories that aren’t being told.'”

One of those rarely told stories is the subject of his 10th book, Long Way Down. The novel is a marvel: It plays out in just 60 seconds as 15-year-old Will, who’s on an elevator, has to decide whether he’ll follow the unspoken rules of the community and avenge his brother’s murder — or put the gun away and return home.

Like most of Reynolds’ books, inspiration came from real life. “I lost a friend to murder when I was 19,” he explains. “That night, all of my friends and I were at his mom’s house, and I remember the feeling of the room, which was this thickness. It was like the room was catalyzed.” He knew that any of them could walk out the door and murder the killer, but his friend’s mother urged them not to let any other parent feel her pain. “I’ll never forget the feeling of time suspended,” he says. “I knew I wanted to tell a story about a kid who has every reason to do this, and every reason not to do this.”

Ideas for future books bubble out of Reynolds: He describes at least four upcoming projects, a couple of which he’s not supposed to talk about. When people ask how he can possibly be so prolific, he cites the advice Walter Dean Myers gave him the first time they met. Myers asked Reynolds, still working at Rag & Bone, about his writing schedule, and he explained that he wrote two-and-a-half pages before work, and another two-and-a-half in the evening after he got home. Myers took the information in, then made some quick calculations: “Five pages a day, five days a week, that’s a book every three months, that’s four books a year. That’s more books than anyone will ever be able to publish,” he said. “If you do it this way, you will not fail.”

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