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Best-Selling Author Jason Reynolds, Parnassus Books and Project LIT promote reading at Lipscomb University

Kasie Corley | 

Jason Reynolds Large

Lipscomb University’s College of Education, in partnership with Parnassus Books, hosted award-winning, bestselling author Jason Reynolds as part of the Lipscomb Literacy: Building Equity & Engagement series on April 10.

Jason Reynolds 9The visit saw widespread support and participation from area schools with around 600 middle school and high school students in attendance to hear Reynolds talk about the importance of reading and telling your story.

“Through the Lipscomb Literacy series, we’ve brought hundreds of students, families and educators to campus for community events focused around literacy and equitable access to author visits and award-winning books,” said Julie Simone, instructor in Lipscomb’s College of Education.

“We’ve created opportunities for kids to develop their identities as readers and writers by meeting award winning authors whose own stories help them see themselves as readers and writers, too. It’s through our partnership with Parnassus that we are able to make this happen and have every kid walk away with a book today,” said Simone.

Reynold’s visit to Lipscomb came of an email from Parnassus’ children's and teen manager Stephanie Appell with an admittedly farfetched idea which on April 10 became reality. “I’m still pinching myself that we pulled this off,” she said, excitedly awaiting the start of the event.

Jason Reynolds 14“I am a person whose life was changed by having had the experience of finding myself in a book as a young person. I think every young person deserves that opportunity. Anything I can do to provide spaces where the chance for that to happen is possible, and I’m going to try and make that happen,” said Appell.

Michelle Hasty, assistant professor in the College of Education, agreed. “I think it’s about empowering students. When we talk about reading with kids, it’s not just about what the author has written in the book, but it’s also about what the readers bring to the book. It’s about that intersection between the words on the page and the connections and past experiences of the reader that allows them to make meaning of the text,” she said.

Students had an opportunity to share and discuss their thoughts about Reynolds work prior to the main event through a book club session with the Project LIT Community in Beaman Library. The session included small group discussion of Reynold’s “Long Way Down.” The Project LIT Community began in 2016 when founder Jarred Amato, inspired by an article he read in The Atlantic about “book deserts,” worked with his Maplewood High School students to start a movement to quench the lack of books.

Jason Reynolds 1“The initial goal was to increase book access in Nashville. It has evolved from that to providing access to more diverse books, more culturally relevant books and great books in particular, and to promote a love of reading in our communities,” explained Amato.

“Simply increasing book access without focusing on the quality of the books or increasing excitement about reading isn’t going to solve the problem. The goal is to create a community of lifelong readers at all levels and bring people together for conversations about books,” said Amato.

The rapid success of Project LIT may cause one to think seasoned professionals lead the charge. Pleasantly, students drive the movement, conducting fundraising, logistics, marketing, advertising, media, design and engineering components of the project’s success.

“The number one goal is to build readers, but also leaders,” said Amato. “Empowering our students to be leaders in our schools and in our communities and helping them to develop the skills that they can use throughout their life and in college is what Project LIT is about. I facilitate behind the scenes, but really, they run it.”

Jason Reynolds 2The movement floods the nation, now present in 34 states and over 100 classrooms across the country. “The dream is that together we help every child bring home a brand new book every month, K-12,” said Amato. When he says “book,” Amato means an actual book, not a digital book, e-book, or book downloaded to a computer, tablet or phone.   

“The opportunity to unplug and put the phone away is something we’re very passionate about. There are so many distractions when they try to read on their phone. To get a kid to put away their phone or a video game and read a book, the book has to be good. It has to matter, it has to be interesting and exciting,” said Amato.

Jason Reynolds is in the business of creating interesting books. He devotes his life to what Amato described, treating writing not as an occupation rather, a vocation. Reynolds did not always know he wanted to write books for young adults. In fact, he originally thought he wrote for adults. “They were like, 'The second book you wrote happens to also be for kids.' I was like, ‘Really?’ There is a lot going on in this story. They said, ‘Nah. This is for kids.’” Reynolds recalled

Jason Reynolds 5“Then when I started to talk to kids every day who were reading these books and started getting emails from parents who were like, ‘I don’t know who you are, but my kid loves this book and my kid doesn’t like to read,’ It became as though it chose me, in a way, because I also hated to read at that age. The pieces of the puzzle fell into place and I just tried to listen and decided to roll with it,” said Reynolds.

“I think writing for kids is like a vocation. Everything else is occupation. Writing, for me, is vocational. What is more serious than the lives of children and influencing and impacting those lives the best way you can while you have the chance to do it? What could be more serious,” asked Reynolds.

Reynolds famously hated to read and managed to make it through high school and a large part of college before ever fully reading a book. By chance, he purchased Queen Latifah’s third studio album, “Black Reign,” in cassette form when he was a kid. Listening to the album while reading the liner notes, Reynolds became inspired by Queen Latifah’s poetry. Motivated by his discovery, Reynolds began to create his own poetry which he still affectionately refers to as his “Queen Latifah Poems.” 

Jason Reynolds 8Later, Reynolds took his poems to the next level and authored eight books in three years with two more released on April 10, “Sunny” and “For Every One.” “There’s a healthy amount of fear. Everyday is a reminder that it could go away. But there’s also the acknowledgement of the opportunity to change an entire row on a bookshelf,” said Reynolds.

“I think that if a kid reads a book that they really love, they want to know what else the author has to offer. I want to make it so they don’t run out. I want to make it like what Walter D. Myers was able to do, or what R.L. Stine was able to do with Goosebumps. There is something to be said about volume when you get kids invigorated about reading. To leave them with nothing is the biggest ball drop.”

Reynolds received a valuable piece of advice from friend Christopher Myers’ dad, Walter D. Myers, that stuck with him, becoming his code for his approach to writing. “If you write five pages a day, five days a week, that’s 25 pages a week. That’s a hundred pages a month and a book every three months. That’s four books a year, and four books a year is more books than anybody will be able to publish. It’s the only way I know how to do it,” said Reynolds.

Jason Reynolds 3Reynold’s work ethic is resultant of his gratefulness to do what he loves for a living. “To me, everyday of my life is a day I spend trying to justify why it was given to me. Why wouldn’t I? Why be disrespectful to the people who didn’t get the shot but worked just as hard as you?” 

Reynolds work in “Long Way Down” and “When I Was the Greatest” maintain relevance in light of the national discussion on gun violence. “Long Way Down” tells the story of a young man who decides to kill the person responsible for shooting and killing his brother. On the elevator ride down from his apartment, he is visited by different people, already dead, who tell him their story.

“When I Was the Greatest” is the story of three teens who attend an exclusive party in which trouble ensues. The cover touts a colorful, knitted gun which symbolizes the duality between aggression and compassion, violence and peace, cursing and compliments, hard and soft, all themes the characters face in the story and that we face as a culture.

Jason Reynolds 10“It’s this concept that if a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is around, does the tree make a sound? I always say there are so many questions to ask before we ask does the tree make a sound,” explained Reynolds.

“The questions we should be asking are number one: if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around, where exactly are all the people? Number two: what caused the tree to fall? Is there wind or lightning? Are there things eating at the tree? This is a way we have to think about our young people who are in situations where they are pointing guns. These are questions I think that need to be asked. That is why we need to have conversations around a book like “Long Way Down.”

Reynolds went on to describe what he has witnessed when visiting kids in juvenile detention facilities. “When they walk into the room, the first thing you see are children. When you look in their faces, the first thing you see is the innocence and the naivete of a child.”

Jason Reynolds 12“That’s the reason why I continue to push that, why I put the gun on the cover of the book. Why I wrote about it in the violence of “When I Was the Greatest,” or the violence in “Long Way Down.” Violence is happening whether you want to admit it or not. You better start talking about it in an honest way and asking the right questions.” Reynolds explained.

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