As a kid, the lyrics of Queen Latifah inspired him to become a writer
Credit: Kia Chenelle; Simon & Schuester

After developing his own lyrical voice in acclaimed slice-of-life YA novels, Jason Reynolds has scored a National Book Award nomination for his trenchant middle-grade tale Ghost. Below, he opens up to EW about what inspired the book and how he gets inside his characters’ heads.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In Ghost, a father tries to murder his wife and their 9-year-old son. Where did the idea for this story come from?

REYNOLDS: A version of it happened to one of my best friends when he was 6 or 7—it was his mom’s boyfriend who tried to kill them. They got out of the house and ran into a 7-Eleven, frantic and begging. I was like, “I’ve got to put this in a book.”

When you borrow from someone’s life like that, do you ask them first?

For sure. Especially if it’s something this traumatic. Not for nothing, it could be a trigger if I didn’t tell [the friend who inspired Ghost], and he read this book and was like, “Yo, this sounds a lot like me.”

Did you incorporate the actual emotional aftermath of his ordeal?

Nah. It’s the whole Toni Morrison thing. When she wrote Beloved, she got the premise from a newspaper article. But she didn’t do any research. She was like, “Let my imagination do the rest of the work and create this story.” My job is to put myself in the situations using my own trauma and my own experiences. I know the feeling of confusion and betrayal. I know the feeling of fearing for my life. These are the things that I tapped into.

The main character in this novel runs track, which you use as a powerful metaphor.

There’s running from things—which we learn to do very young—and running towards them. Running from yourself. Running from your community. Those are all things I wanted to explore.

This is your second middle-grade book. What sets them apart from writing YA novels?

Fart jokes! They make middle-grade a ton of fun—writing from the point of view of an 11-year-old and being outrageously immature in all the best ways.

Is anything too dark for young readers?

No. It’s about how you execute it. Eleven-and 12-year-olds are aware of things that you and I weren’t at their age because of the internet. It’s almost dangerous for us as adults and artists to be afraid to go there, because they’re living it. It’s happening. And we should be there with them and give them a safe space to have a discussion.