National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature speaks at Neosho

Seth Kinker
Neosho Daily News

On Apr. 7, Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, spoke virtually to students at the Jefferson Street Campus (JSC), the junior high and high school as part of his two-week virtual tour this spring.

Reynolds was appointed the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Librarian of Congress as an initiative of the Library of Congress.

His two-year term includes tours across small towns in America with the purpose of expounding on his platform, “GRAB THE MIC: Tell Your Story,” where he talks about his journey from reluctant reader to award winning author while having meaningful discussions with youth with a focus on listening to students and empowering them to share their own personal stories.

“If you’ve read any of Jason’s material, he relates well to students,” said Ryan Sheffield, Director of the JSC. “I think, maybe a parallel between what he does and what we do here, is respecting the intelligence of young people, and treating them like the young adults they are. I think that’s why (students are) drawn to it. The same reason kids might be drawn to the scary books at the library when they’re young, ‘I am ready for this, I want to be challenged as a mind,’ We often assume they’re not ready for things they are ready to tackle.

“My job is to make sure (the kids) know that they are their own ambassadors and to help hold that microphone in front of their faces, and say, ‘you get to tell your story,’” said Reynolds on the call when asked about the importance of his platform and the effect it has on his work. “My job is to say, ‘I’m bearing witness to your life,’ and your life is valuable enough for me to put it on the page without using their lives as educational tools, using their lives as teachable fodder, using their lives as fable-istic tales.”

In support of Reynolds tour, The Library of Congress has purchased paperback copies of his most recent book, Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, for Neosho as well as 11 other middle and high schools that were chosen from more than 250 proposals received in January. 

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks was named a Best Book of 2019 by NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post and TIME and is a collection of linked short stories that take place within ten city blocks.

During his tour, Reynolds will connect with each selected school where he will discuss his role as an Ambassador with an educator at each school in addition to taking questions from two student “ambassadors.”

Samantha Kibel, an English teacher at the JSC, submitted a proposal for Reynolds to speak at Neosho with Angela Fry, another English teacher at the JSC, and Sydney Angel and Tammie Williams, both of whom are librarians at the junior and senior high schools.

Kibel and Fry’s push, starting last year, was to fill their classroom libraries with contemporary and engaging literature for their students.

“We have been engaging in author studies of Jason and his work throughout this year,” said Kibel in an email. “And students have been excitedly shoving his books into one another's hands all year, ‘You got to read this!’ If adults don't believe that young people still read books, they should talk to our kids.”

In order to maximize the opportunity for Neosho students outside of the JSC, Fry and Kibel partnered with Angel and Williams to put together a proposal.

That proposal included information about the district, the community and why they wanted Reynolds to speak at Neosho.

“We focused on the fact that, for many of our students, reading Jason's books fundamentally changed their way of thinking about themselves as both students and as people,” said Kibel. “Before reading his books, many students had not viewed themselves as readers or had lost interest in reading altogether. We wanted the people reading the proposal to know the full impact that Jason's books and his message has on our students--especially those who had felt marginalized in one way or another.”

With Kibel moderating the conversation, senior Salvador Torres and sophomore Anthony Lopes represented Neosho in an on camera Zoom meeting with Reynolds by conversing back and forth and asking questions from themselves and their peers while the rest of the district tuned in via Zoom.

Jason Reynolds (left) and Sal Torres (right) speak during the Zoom call for Reynolds visit with the Neosho School District.

Torres’ asked Reynolds about where he got his inspiration for his writing, what Reynolds was like in high school and what inspired another one of his books, For Everyone.

“The wild thing about that is, most of these books are coming from real part of my life,” said Reynolds responding to Torres’ question about his inspiration for his writing. 

“My biggest question was where does he get his inspiration? How does he do it?” said Torres. “I want to do good things in life, I needed inspiration from him too.”

“Back in the fall when I first moved to this school, around September, Ms. Kibel gave me Long Way Down (by Jason Reynolds) and I’ve been hooked ever since,” said Torres.

“I was in shock, I was speechless,” added Torres when he learned he would be interviewing Reynolds.

Jason Reynolds (left) and Anthony Lopes (right) speak during the Zoom call for Reynolds visit with the Neosho School District.

Lopes asked Reynolds about the ending of Long Way Down, another one of Reynolds books, guys showing emotions in his books and Reynolds’ favorite rappers.

“A lot the things (Ms. Kibel) teaches come from him because he’s a really good writer and it’s easy to teach us those things. It helps us,” said Lopes. “We were amazed with his writing and the things he talked about. It sparked an interest in reading for me.”

Lopes came up with the question about Reynolds having guys showing emotion in his books, asking him if it was intentional to address masculinity.

“It’s my way of saying, ‘there is nothing about crying that is not masculine,’” said Reynolds on the call in response to Lopes’ question about guys showing emotion. “What I really want to say (in my writing) is, ‘yo, young brother, be a human,’ being a person means you’re going to have to have emotions and show emotions in a healthy way.”

“That stereotype is so fluid now a days,” said Lopes. “If you cry, ‘man up,’ If you want to do things that aren’t the typical male thing, ‘man up, stop doing that,’ (Reynolds) writes about it a lot and has males cry and no one says anything about it. It’s embraced.”

“It’s completely changed the way he communicates as a human and a person,” said Kibel on Lopes. “On the surface, yes, he’s talking about this stuff. But even deeper, the fact a young man, 16 years old, can sit here and talk to a stranger about masculinity and the concept of that, that’s a product of this building We talk about the hard things in every class. The kids become fluent in it.”

“(Reynolds) talks about male masculinity and how it’s okay to cry,” added Lopes. “I’ve been thinking about that, usually boys don’t read books about falling in love and that type of stuff. I started trying out books like that, Five Feet Apart (for example), and they’re really good. It opened up a whole other section of books (to me) that guys don’t read because of that stereotype.”

Kibel called seeing kids’ passion for reading grow and the opportunity to bring Reynolds to Neosho as being the most fulfilling part of her teaching career thus far.

“It’s why I (teach),” said Kibel. “This climate and the culture of this building among teachers really allows a teacher like me who wants to do things but isn’t sure of her footing yet, allows me to feel supported. Not just this event but everything that goes into the fact that this event could occur.”

“The obvious one is pride,” said Sheffield on emotions that came to mind when seeing Neosho students on a Zoom call with an Ambassador appointed by the Librarian of Congress. “Other emotions today, I saw people cry laughing, giddy (leading up to the call). They couldn’t sit in their chairs and I was one of them. Because it was genuine. The kind of vulnerability Jason, Sal, Anthony and Ms. Kibel were all willing to have in that call, I think is almost a gift to other people. We all experienced it with them, it was genuine.”