Alexandra Rockey Fleming
October 24, 2017 10:18 AM

Award-winning writer and young-adult author Jason Reynolds aims his books at the nonbelievers. The kids “who don’t have faith that there are books out there for them,” he tells PEOPLE. The kids who might live in urban neighborhoods and may be struggling within complicated cultural codes of loyalty and justice. Kids who could look and act a lot like Reynolds himself once did.

Reynolds, 33, rocks the look —  the T-shirt, the sneakers, “with my hair all over my head,” he says — that attracts young people. But it’s so much more than that.

“I don’t talk about reading. I talk about Kool-Aid and ramen noodles, Jordans and basketball, because that’s what matters to them,” says Reynolds, who speaks to students at more than 100 schools, community centers and juvenile facilities every year.

Ben Fractenberg
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And they’ve responded — as have the critics. Since the 2007 breakout of his first young-adult novel, When I Was the Greatest, Reynolds has seen his books reach the New York Times bestseller list and enjoyed acclaim as the winner of multiple Coretta Scott King honors. His latest, Long Way Down, will be released on Oct. 24.

The road to success was a long one for Reynolds. Raised just outside of Washington, D.C., by a single mom whom he adores, Reynolds headed to New York after college to try his hand as an author. His first book, cowritten with a buddy, fell with a thud. Forced to move back home, Reynolds paid the bills as a department store clerk, “putting sensors on women’s underwear for eight hours a day, every day,” among other jobs, before moving back to New York to try his hand at writing another young-adult novel. This time it worked.

Jason Reynolds at age 6.
Courtesy Jason Reynolds

Since then, he has written seven more, including his current book, Long Way Down. It’s the story — written in verse — of a 15-year-old who sees his older brother gunned down on the streets in which the rules prescribe no crying, no snitching and — most implacable — revenge.

The book reflects elements of Reynolds’ own life: At 19, he lost a friend to murder and acutely recalls his feelings: “A suspension of time coupled with the strange and dissonant feeling that we could exact revenge,” he says. “Because of this moment, I know it’s necessary to address issues around gun violence as issues that are much bigger than young people. Once we consider them as anything other than kids, we strip them of their humanity, when often what they feel is insurmountable pain, just as I did.”

Readers who may be living in this environment take comfort in knowing that someone else sees them and cares for them, Reynolds says. And for kids who don’t live in this world, his words will encourage them to think and feel before firing judgment into a life and framework foreign to them.

Long Way Down is joining a collection of Reynolds books that critics call culturally relevant and relatable, brimming with authentic characters and voices. Each raises questions germane to any young person — issues around masculinity and femininity, sexuality, revenge, allegiance, confidence and fear.

Reynolds just calls them real. “The truths are universal: Every kid knows fear. Every kid knows family and friendship. Loss, love, laughter. Everything else is just detail,” he says.

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