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Summer reading lists for young people at a time of crisis


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: As the pandemic wears on and protests over racial inequity pick up, young people may be looking to books to learn more and find some distraction from the tough realities of the world.

Jeffrey Brown talks to a leading writer and advocate for young people's literature about how summer reading lists may reflect the times.

The conversation is part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: As the Library of Congress' ambassador for young people's literature, 36-year-old Jason Reynolds is used to sharing his passion for reading and writing.

Jason Reynolds: I know, these days, we look on the Internet for this kind of stuff, but this thing is like the greatest thing ever made.

Jeffrey Brown: This is one of the regular talks he does on social media for his Write, Right, Rite project. And in normal, non-pandemic times, he meets often with students around the country.

He's author of 13 books for young people that have sold more than 2.5 million copies. His most recent, "Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks," was a National Book Award finalist. He's also recently co-written "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You," an adaptation for young readers of Ibram Kendi's National Book Award-winning history "Stamped From the Beginning."

I spoke with Jason Reynolds recently at his Washington, D.C., home and began by asking what he looks for in books to understand the world in such unusual and difficult times as these.

Jason Reynolds: I mean, I'm always searching for human stories. I think, ultimately, human beings are human beings' greatest inspirations and greatest influences.

And I recognize that, right now, we're sort of inundated with brilliant pieces of nonfiction, whether it be academic tomes or essay work. And I think those things are important. But, for me, I'm seeking empathy. I'm seeking for something to attach itself to the chemical nature of who I am and change me as a person.

And the best way to do that, for me, is through fiction.

Jeffrey Brown: Think about young people seeing now the death of George Floyd, the protests going on, all the world kind of exploding around them. What do you recommend?

Jason Reynolds: Number one, there's a book called "Black Imagination," and it's by a woman named Natasha Marin. It's not technically a book for young people, but I do think young people could gain a lot from it.

It's simply just a collection of notes and moments by people who are not famous, but just saying how they feel about what it means to be black and the beauty of blackness.

There's another book, a collection of short stories that I absolutely love and I'm honored to be a part of called "Black Enough." It was edited by Ibi Zoboi.

I think one of the most important things we can do right now is humanize blackness and humanize culture, right? I think we -- right now, people are looking at black people as sort of like petri dish specimens. And the reality is, is that we're just human beings living normal lives. And that book shines a light on that.

And then I think Eloise Greenfield, "Honey, I Love." This is for the little kids. I think this might be one of the best picture books, even though it's sort of a picture book, sort of not, collection of poems for little kids that I -- it's just the best.

The illustrations are beautiful, Eloise Greenfield, "Honey, I Love."

Jeffrey Brown: All right. What about the pandemic, which is still with us, which has, for young people, of course, uprooted their lives, just as for the rest of us?

Jason Reynolds: You know, there's a book called "Dry" by Neal Shusterman, because I was thinking about this. What would I want young people to read during the pandemic?

And there aren't a lot of books specifically, at least that I know of, about pandemics for young people. But "Dry" is an interesting story because it's about what happens when the natural world turns its back, or what happens when we actually start to use up the resources and all of the sudden there is no more water, right?

And so what happens to us as people? Where do we go? What kind of nature comes out of us? Who do we become when we have to fight for natural resources? And I think a lot of us are up against that right now, because the pandemic has forced us to be up against it in an interesting way.

So, I would suggest that. And I also would suggest a collection of poems by this brilliant poet named Ilya Kaminsky. The collection is "Deaf Republic." Now, again, this isn't necessarily categorized for young people, but I do think that young people can grapple with some of these poems.

The poems are sort of addressing what happens in a world where no one can hear. And I think, right now, for a lot of us locked in our homes, that's kind of what it feels like.

Jeffrey Brown: We're coming into summer. It's the time we think of usually as sort of escape reading.

And I wonder if you can even think about escaping, because of the heavy things that we have just been talking about.

Jason Reynolds: I think that there are books that are about escape and that you -- that we can look to, books like Lamar Giles' "The Last Last-Day-of-Summer."

I think it's a brilliant book about young kids who are spending the summer in Virginia and go on sort of a whodunit magical fantasy. And I think it's important that we allow and create opportunity for young people to escape and to escape into worlds that are not like their own.

I also think there are ways that we can have summer escape books, escapist books, that also sort of bump up against our reality. So, there are books like "A Song Below Water" by Bethany C. Morrow. This is a fantasy novel, because I don't think we talk enough about fantasy and sci-fi.

I think we live in a world that is sort of touching fantastic elements and sort of the future of sci-fi and what the world looks like as it constantly changes. And this book is about sirens, right, this idea of the siren song and about two young women who use the siren song and how they used it to change their community.

It's beautiful and it's brilliant.

And then, lastly, Elizabeth Acevedo's "Clap When You Land." And this isn't a book that's going to sort of catapult you into some other world, per se, but it is a book that I think is an important read, just because it's about love and family and struggle and reconciliation. And who doesn't want to read about that?

Jeffrey Brown: All right, some reading for our time for young people and all of us.

Jason Reynolds, thank you very much.

Jason Reynolds: Thank you.

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