Jason Reynolds: “Reading rap lyrics made me realize that poetry could be for me” | Books

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My first memory of reading
I remember Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are that my kindergarten teacher read to me when I was five years old. There are certain words in this book that remain etched in your memory, such as “heckling” and “mischief”. If I look back now, I can see that it was illuminating certain sensory stimuli in my brain, which means that my love for language manifested itself very early on.

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My favorite book growing up
Books weren’t really my thing when I was a kid. I didn’t read on my own until I was 17 or 18. It just wasn’t my life.

The book that changed me as a teenager
The first one I chose to read on my own was Richard Wright’s Black Boy. It changed me just because it sounded familiar to me. And also the excitement of it starts early. On page two or three, the house is on fire. I think it’s always a matter of which book meets you at the right time. He just clicked. And I left for the races after that.

The book that made me want to be a writer
It’s tricky, because I don’t think it’s a book. When I was young I would go to the music store and buy rap tapes. And I would open them and read the sleeve notes. And reading rap lyrics was the start of my entry into writing, because I wanted to be able to do what my favorite rappers were doing. I realized that poetry was something that could be for me, because these rappers were doing it. I still think the poetic devices they used are completely underestimated. So it was really Queen Latifah’s Black Reign that started my love of writing.

The book or author to which I returned
Toni Morrison. Her work is like a costume you have to grow up in. I first read his books when I was 19 in college and didn’t understand a word. But when I was 30, I read Sula and thought to myself, “Oh, that’s beautiful.”

The book that I reread
I read Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward about once a year. I have read it probably 15 times. For my palate, this is the closest thing to a perfect novel.

The book I could never read again
The Wild State of Roxane Gay. I couldn’t take it twice because it is largely sexual violence. But the love story woven into it is brilliantly captured. I had never read a book that existed at such polar ends of the spectrum, from absolute violence to absolute euphoria – I thought it was genius.

The book I discovered later in life
I read Stephen King’s short story The Body [on which the film Stand By Me was based] recently and it’s amazing. It’s so light – 190 pages. I think the best of us can say a lot of things in a few words. And this book is pretty amazing.

The book I’m currently reading
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead. It’s good. I think it’s hard to argue against the idea that he’s the best living American author. He’s consistent – and it feels like he’s still having a good time. With this novel he says, “Okay, I did some serious back-to-back work. Now I’m going to take a walk and do something a little plump. And I think we should all be lucky enough to feel so free. My God, this is inspiring for a young writer like me.

My comfort reading
Any James Baldwin book. If you are black in America, Baldwin is the guy who tells you that you are right to feel what you are feeling. So he’s super comforting to me.

Stuntman while waiting for Jason Reynolds,illustrated by Raúl III, is published by Knights Of (£ 7.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


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