The Shelf Care Interview: Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Maggie Reagan talks to Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds.

Ibram X. Kendi, a professor of history and international relations, is one of America’s foremost historians and leading anti-racist voices. He is the New York Times‘ best-selling author of How to Be an Antiracist, National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning, and the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, DC.

Jason Reynolds is the New York Times best-selling multi-award winning author of many books for children, including the Track series and the Printz, Newbery, and Coretta Scott King Honor book, Long Way Down. Recently he was appointed the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, Jason’s remix for young readers of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning, comes out in March from Little, Brown.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. The transcript has been edited for clarity.


MAGGIE REAGAN: Thank you both for joining me.

JASON REYNOLDS: I appreciate it. Thank you for having me.

IBRAM X. KENDI:  Oh, it’s a pleasure to be on the show. 

Why don’t you start out by telling us a little bit about Stamped?

KENDI: Well, Stamped is literally a remix, a complete remix, of my book Stamped From the Beginning. Stamped From the Beginning was a narrative history of racist ideas from literally their origins to the present. Stamped essentially tells a similar narrative, but it’s certainly geared toward middle schoolers and high schoolers. It’s really, really engaging. It’s the type of book that I think can sort of transform young people and set them on an anti-racist course for the rest of their lives.

What was it like trusting someone else to do this work with you and for you?

KENDI: Well, I mean, I knew that it wasn’t necessarily something that I could do well. I knew that I struggled just to do the book for adults, and so trying to imagine writing it for a completely new audience of young people, I thought finding someone who’d done this and who’s done this extremely well would be much more effective.

I hugely admire Jason Reynolds and his work. And so I think it was my admiration of him that allowed me to sort of trust him. I kind of knew from the beginning that he would create a magical book and that’s certainly what he did.

Jason, why don’t you give us your perspective on Stamped, and tell us a little bit about what it was like to work on an adaption.

REYNOLDS: The first time I read the original book, Stamped from the Beginning, and I told Dr. Kendi this, it felt like a new tuning fork, right? It was a new True North in the way that we talk about racism in this country. Not that we don’t necessarily have these ideas, but I think he presents new language, a new lexicon to help us become a bit more literate, race literate. And understanding who we are and what parts we play. And it’s ever evolving, a very slippery sort of issue. And to adapt that book to me, because I had such an immense respect for it, was really intimidating.

I wish I could spin the narrative into a narrative of me being really courageous and heroic and saying, “Yes, I can handle this. I can do this thing.” But the truth is that it took some coaxing. It took some sort of massaging because I wasn’t quite sure that I had the intellectual capacity to take this tome, this opus, and turn it into something that I felt was a bit more palatable for teenagers. And for people who just may not be academics. It took a while. And really, it was just about me trying to figure out what exactly is the right approach. How do I want to do this? How do I do this without completely bastardizing this man’s life’s work? And all of these things sort of came into play. And ultimately, it came down to them trusting me, Dr. Kendi and Little, Brown trusting me. And even more importantly, me trusting myself, and me trusting my own voice. Me trusting my gut, my intuition, which has led me this far. And once I settled into that, it was all good.

So I do want to talk about the voice for a second. I don’t want to say the tone in the book is fun, exactly, because a lot of the topics you get into are very intense. But it’s really conversational, and I think you address these very complex topics without dumbing them down for a teen audience. And you make it very interesting to read. How did you find that voice?

REYNOLDS: That’s pretty much my voice in general, right? My life’s work, as it stands today, is figuring out how to take a big thing, a big idea, and whittle it down into something really small without losing any of the elements of the big idea in a way that feels cool, right? All of my books sort of handle these things. In my sort of separate work, it’s all about how do we deconstruct our very narrow ideas of masculinity, right? But with an 11-year-old, how do we deconstruct these ideas around incarceration and gun violence around a 15-year-old? And a novel in verse, right? Figuring out ways to take huge ideas, and these really complex ideas, and taking them from an ocean to a raindrop without using any of the H2O. That’s sort of my jam.

And the other thing is I wanted to figure out a way to put us all in conversation with this history, right? And furthermore, to put us in conversation with this presence, right? What’s happening right now? What’s to come if we’re not careful? What has happened already? But to put us right in the middle of it. Instead of it being something that we sort of look at through some kind of glass, it’s like, “Let’s all get inside the cage and wrestle around with the lion that is racism.” And I think in order to do that, you’ve got to make it eye level. You’ve got to make it eye level. And that was all I wanted to do.

“Let’s all get inside the cage and wrestle around with the lion that is racism.” And I think in order to do that, you’ve got to make it eye level.

I’m sure the approach for this book was different than with its parent book. Can you talk about some of the different aims that you have when communicating these ideas for a younger audience versus than approaching them for adults?

KENDI: Yeah, so Stamped from the Beginning was over 500 pages. It was a pretty sweeping history and so obviously we wanted to communicate to young people some of the central sort of points and themes and stories of that book and to really sort of focus on the bones and really tell it to young people straight because young people typically like it straight. But they also needed to be engaged, and so the type of language and the way that it’s written, is just deeply engaging for young people.

REYNOLDS: Kendi gave me like, “These are the points that are not negotiable. They have to be in the book.” Which I appreciated, because I was sort of swimming. I was drowning for a moment, trying to figure out that very thing, what stays, what goes. I mean a five, six-hundred page book, that’s a lot of cutting, a lot of dicing. And so, he gave me sort of bullet points about like, “Hey, these ideas have to be in the book.” And then the rest of it was me figuring out what extra elements do I need to put in the book to create glue so that I can jump from one idea to the next and it feels fluid. And that kind of dictated sort of what made it and what didn’t.

And then the other thing was making sure that are we talking about women? Are we talking about the LGBTQI-plus community? Because all populations, all parts of our humanity, are present in the conversation and in the intersections of race, class, and gender. And so all of them have to be represented. Are we talking about Indigenous people? I have to mention it because we’re talking about the building of America. You can’t mention that without the eradication and the genocide of Indigenous people. And so making sure that as I talk about this topic that so often is distilled down into a black and white issue, there were so many other elements that needed to be a part of it in order to make it rounded, and more of a macro level conversation.

In general, what inspires your writing or the projects you decide to take on?

KENDI: I think transforming people because I’ve been transformed by literature and books. You know, literally books and literature has been my guide, has been my guidepost. And so being able to write books that can do the same for other people as they’re doing for me because literally the books I write changed me too. That’s really what inspires me.

REYNOLDS: I mean, for me, it’s all about the kids. I think when I’m out of here, my legacy will be that I left a library for young people to read during this time, right? It may not last forever, but during this time, I want to make sure that I’m doing my job and creating a generation of readers. A generation that feel connected to literature, and to language, and to stories, and to literacy. And feel acknowledged, and feel seen, all those sorts of things. And so I’m always thinking about what are the decisions that I need to make to ensure that the world is left a little better when I’m done? And this book is a part of that.

Twenty years down the line, what happens if a generation of kids has this book at 10, 11, 12, 13, 14-years-old? How does their comfort with these conversations change as they grow into 30-year-olds, and hopefully they won’t have to eggshell like so many of us do. And they’re able to kind of sit down and have very direct conversations that are less emotional and more forward.

How have libraries played a role in your reading or writing life?

KENDI: I’m an historian and as an historian I’ve spent quite a bit of time in libraries, especially archives of libraries and going through old books. That’s, in a way, like my second home. You know, a place I feel deeply comfortable being since I’ve spent so much time, particularly a long time, in those places.

REYNOLDS: I mean, when I was a kid, libraries weren’t a thing. I mean, they existed, but they didn’t seem like places that a kid like me wanted to be, to be honest with you. I love them now, of course. But when I was younger, they felt like, you know, they were hush boxes. Why would I ever go into a space where I had to be quiet? We were in the street laughing and joking, and you walk into the library and you get shushed. And so I didn’t feel always welcomed in those spaces when I was younger. Of course, now they’re very different. Now they’re safe spaces for all kinds of kids. And now they’re like these bastions, these oases of expression and diversity, right? Anything that you want to do and be, in a library, you can do and be now. And then that’s a very different thing.

If you want to go and sit in the corner and read your books, you can do that. If you want to go and jump on the computer and browse the internet, you can do that. And they’ve got youth centers, and some of them you can go in and record music these days, right? You can do all kinds of things. And so libraries have now taken on almost the role of a community center. And I think that’s what they’ve always been, I just don’t know if they’ve always been welcoming as such. And I think nowadays they truly represent beacons in communities, and I’m always impressed and always really, really inspired by them.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to read or surround yourself with?

KENDI: When I’m not writing, I just like to read fascinating books, books that break new ground on ideas or moments in time or concepts or even, of course, novels that completely reimagine a particular period or a particular problem. There are fortunately many, many great books coming out these days, and so I feel like I never have enough time to read them all.

REYNOLDS: I read a little bit of everything. I mean, I read a lot of contemporary adult fiction because I think that I have to sometimes remind myself that I can use all my tricks, I can use all of my complete skillset. I just have to figure out how to do so when writing for younger people. But it’s all still there. The full tool kit is there. And so I read adult fiction, contemporary fiction, just so that I can remember sometimes, remind that like, “Oh yeah, I can do that in the children’s book too.” I could use sequence, and tell stories in complex ways. I could use inference, and suggestion, and symbolism, and metaphor, and rhythm, and repetition. I could use all of my devices, nothing is off-limits. Just because I choose to write for children doesn’t mean I have to limit myself when it comes to how I do that. And the adult work reminds me of that sometimes.

I read a lot of poetry, I read a lot of essays. Obviously, I read a lot of children’s books and young adult books. I try to keep up with what’s going on, but it moves at a different clip. So it’s really difficult to stay up with everybody and everything. And I’m trying to get into some fantasy stuff, that’s new for me, but I’m easing my way in. I think I’m starting with some magical realism, and sort of easing my way into the fantasy stuff. I don’t have the biggest sort of pension for fantasy, but I’m curious. I know there’s much to learn there, and so I want to learn it. And it’s got a place, and it’s got a purpose, and it’s wildly successful, and people love it. And so I need to understand what it is, and what human beings are attaching themselves to so that I can figure out how to use that as well.

This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, publisher of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. Available now.

About the Author:

Maggie Reagan works for Booklist as an associate editor in the Books for Youth department. In addition to the required love of reading, she is also an adventure junkie, animal hugger, and stringed-instrument enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @MagdalenaRayGun.

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