By Christine Lively
Today we’re pleased to welcome Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin to the WNDB blog to discuss their new book Ain’t Burned All the Bright, which came out January 11, 2022!
Prepare yourself for something unlike anything: A smash-up of art and text for teens that viscerally captures what it is to be Black. In America. Right Now. Written by #1 New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Jason Reynolds.
Jason Reynolds and his best bud, Jason Griffin had a mind-meld. And they decided to tackle it, in one fell swoop, in about ten sentences, and 300 pages of art, this piece, this contemplation-manifesto-fierce-vulnerable-gorgeous-terrifying-WhatIsWrongWithHumans-hope-filled-hopeful-searing-Eye-Poppingly-Illustrated-tender-heartbreaking-how-The-HECK-did-They-Come-UP-with-This project about oxygen. And all of the symbolism attached to that word, especially NOW.
And so for anyone who didn’t really know what it means to not be able to breathe, REALLY breathe, for generations, now you know. And those who already do, you’ll be nodding yep yep, that is exactly how it is.
Content note: This interview discusses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-Black racism, specifically George Floyd’s murder.
How did this book happen? How did it come together?
Jason Griffin: There’s a couple different ways to answer this question, really. I think part of me would say that this book started twenty years ago, and there’s another part of me that says it started in Atlanta four years ago, or there’s another part of me that says that it started in the middle of COVID. The twenty years ago version is that Jay and I have been talking about collaborating since we were roommates in college, and collaborating on a project where both our crafts would be highlighted and neither would be kind of solely an illustration of the other. So, his words wouldn’t be about my artwork and my artwork wouldn’t be about his words. Rather, we would both kind of take a central theme and create our take and then try to mesh the two together. So we’ve been exploring this kind of hybrid art/poetry concept for twenty years.
Jason Reyolds: Yeah. We used to liken it to jazz. These people are playing different syncopations but if you’re listening to a jazz drummer, and you’re listening to the horn player or the piano player, they’re playing in different syncopations or different melodies, but it’s part of the same song. It works to accent the song and make the song what it is. That’s sort of always been our process, and that’s how we’ve thought about it. I think unfortunately, we’re in an industry where it’s much easier to automatically call artwork “illustration,” right? It’s like a default. It’s not necessarily what’s happening. It’s not necessarily what he (Jason Griffin) did in My Name is Jason. It’s not necessarily what he’s done in Ain’t Burned All the Bright, and we kind of want to push that a bit to show that this a co-authored piece of expression, a piece of art. That’s not how our industry works—it’s all templates, categories, and silos.
In terms of how did it actually come about, Jay and I have been working on this concept—this process—for a long time. We’ve done a few iterations of it before My Name is Jason, there was another book and there is a bunch of other stuff that never got published that we made, but there came a funny time in our careers when, like, we couldn’t get anything else made, right? Because that’s just how the industry works, couldn’t get another turn at bat, and life happens, Jason and I grew up. Jason lives his life. I live my life. We start families. We move out of town. Then, four years ago, we’re in Atlanta. I invited Jay to Atlanta. I was down there doing some work, and felt like both of us needed to reconnect, just like life stuff. This is one of my best friends. This is someone I’ve known for a million years. I feel like we miss each other. So we connected and he came down and he spent a day or two, and we spent time and we just made art. It was like being kids again. We were trying to make a story about how to unpack things. So, the original story of this book was about a box. The whole book was about a box. We were trying to figure out how to write a book about unpacking the things that no one ever talks about. How to unpack the things that you push to the back of your mind and stack things on top of it because in that box is all of our insecurities and out secrets and things of that nature. We worked on it and worked on it and it just wasn’t clicking. At this point in our lives, we thought, “If it ain’t working. It ain’t working.” so we put it down and then COVID.
Jason Griffin: And then COVID, and I think, you know, kind of getting together in Atlanta four years ago in a cabin in the woods so it was very conducive to creativity; these are the types of settings that you need to make the magic happen. Because you are ultimately experiencing the same things at the same time. What COVID did, with one of us living in New York and the other living in DC, [was cut us] off from communication, from our families, we were isolated, but the silver lining of it all for both of us and our collaboration was that we were both experiencing the exact same thing. I would love to say that we identified that off break, but it kind of happened very magically, and I’ll give a lot of credit to Reynolds because it was just conversation. We were talking every week or every other week during COVID and that in itself was kind of a lifeline to just be able to talk to each other and talk experience. We talked about the frustrations of creativity and it was a tough time. It was so confusing because here you have the time. You’re cut off. You don’t need to go out, and yet, you’re consumed by what’s happening outside to the point where your creativity is stifled. It was such a bizarre time, and still is.
Reynolds and I were talking about all of that, and I had been working on some sketchbooks. Mentor, our first editor, and dear friend of mine Joanna Cotler, I was talking with her about the project with Reynolds, and I said, “We’re struggling, creatively.” She said, “Well, why don’t you just keep some little sketchbooks around the house and anytime something comes up, anytime something sparks, or you need to process”—because art is the way that I process the world around me—”just go ahead and fill in a sketchbook.” I started talking to Reynolds about this process and saying, “Yo, the box stuff, it’s not coming out, but I am making sketchbook upon sketchbook. I have like three sketchbooks going at the same time. I am calling them my quarantine sketchbooks. I might just be writing down a grocery list in the sketchbook, and I feel like I am putting something down in the sketchbook. Or, writing about an experience I had with my five-year-old or my eleven-year-old or my wife, or writing that I can’t watch the news any more.” And I told Reynolds, I said, “Look, this is like my oxygen mask.” And just, like, casually, like the way that Reynolds does in the conversation he said, “Hmmm, uh Jay, let’s table that. I might have an idea, but I don’t want to talk about it right now.” I was like, “Naw, man tell me!” (both laugh)
He was like, “No Jay, I mean, you know, I don’t want to say it right now because I gotta sleep on it.” In Jay’s words, “It could be a trash idea. It could be a good idea, you know. I’m just not sure yet. I’m gonna hit you tomorrow. I was just like, “Alright…”
Jason Reynolds: (laughs) And the idea was, like, what if that’s the thing. Everybody’s looking for an oxygen mask, and in that sleep, in that processing of the idea, it’s like, yeah, all of 2020 has been an attack on the respiratory system—emotionally and physically. The emotional respiratory system, the mental respiratory system, the social respiratory system, the physical respiratory system, the spiritual respiratory system. Like whatever it is that gives us breath has been taken, or it’s being challenged. Whether it’s the wildfires, whether it’s George Floyd, whether it be COVID, all of it attacks the respiratory system. So the oxygen mask was the trigger. Then I started researching ‘cause I have anxiety, and Jay has been with me when things get out of control, and there is that notion of taking a deep breath. The idea that if you take three long, deep breaths, it’ll kind of bring you down. It’ll kind of recenter you. Every single practice that we have in life to re-center us have everything to do with the acknowledgement of breath: swimming, yoga, meditation, exercise—all of it is about the acknowledgement of breath. So I was like, alright, I’m just gonna do three sentences. So, it’s being categorized as a poem. It’s actually three run-on sentences. Three sentences that we had to break up and put on the page. We had to break up and put [it] on the page in interesting ways for, like, effect and impact. You have to use your poetic devices, but it’s really just three really long sentences. It was actually written in straight ahead prose blocks, not as verse. Each sentence is a breath for one of these particular things.
The last breath is the breath that says: perhaps we’ve been overlooking all of the oxygen masks. Perhaps me and Jason’s conversations once a week, perhaps Jason’s notebook, perhaps his six-year-old and his eleven-year-old and his wife, perhaps the people in my life, this very small community, me checking on my mother, me laying on the couch, maybe this is what we’ve been missing and the lives that we live are so noisy that we don’t ever pay attention to the fact that all of the instruments that we need for survival are around us and are usually the things that annoy us and that we take for granted, you know? And that’s a very long answer, but we have to tell the whole thing in order for it to make sense about where it all comes from.
So in thinking about this as jazz, was this call and response or improvisation together at the same time?
Jason Reynolds: No, in this particular situation, I would have been the drummer or I would have been the bass line. In other works that we’ve done, with My Name is Jason it was a little more like we were playing at the same time type of deal. But, Jay had been working, and I had seen a few of the pieces in his Moleskine, and he was in that practice. This is the thing about Jason, he will lock in on a particular thing for, like, two years. He’ll just do one particular style over and over for years. He was kind of in that mode. I sat at the counter and just wrote. It had kind of been sitting on the tip of my tongue in some weird way. If this was jazz in this particular case, the words would be like the bass line, and Jason brought in the rest of the band.
Who were you thinking about or writing to when you wrote this book?
Jason Reynolds: Usually I say that I am always thinking about the kids and writing for the kids, but this time is a little different because I just needed it for myself. The only other time that has happened is when I wrote For Everyone. I’m thinking about me and what I need in this moment and what I am really going through. Jay, for you what was it like?
Jason Griffin: I would say it was the same. I wanted to add one thing to Jason’s drummer description. I think Jay was also a band leader. It’s kind of like there’s one important thing as we talk about our process that I think was one of those magical moments for me was when Jay said, “I’m gonna give you this written work, and I’m gonna let you, the artist, do whatever you want with it. Like, you have to keep it in sequence, you gotta keep the beat the same, but the way you chop the beat is up to you. So, if you want one word on a page. I’m cool with that. If you want three sentences on a page, I’m cool with that, too. If you want to leave three pages blank and just showcase some artwork, that’s cool too.” So there was a lot of kind of giving up control. The drummer holds the beat, but at the same time, Jay was bringing me in. I keep thinking of Miles Davis and “Kind of Blue” and how he brought all of those legends into the room into that studio in that church and was like, “Look, I brought you in because y’all know what y’all are doing. So, don’t ask me what you’re supposed to do. Do it.” So we have that kind of vibe together.
So, I agree with Jay. It was something that came from a very deep and personal place, and I think it was for Jay, too. It was for myself, and it was also for Jay. It was for what we were trying to say.
Jason Reynolds: I also think that’s why it reads a little like, what category would you put it in? When we wrote My Name Is Jason they called it Young Adult, and we had never heard of that category, but we were 21 and 23 and then you realize that they did that because we were young adults. That’s where we were. Now we’re forty and we’re like: we were babies. This feels a little more like a blurry line, it feels a little more blurry in terms of where it belongs, and I’m cool with that. It could very well sit on any shelf.
Jason Reynolds is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, a Newbery Award Honoree, a Printz Award Honoree, a two-time National Book Award finalist, a Kirkus Award winner, a Carnegie Medal winner, a two-time Walter Dean Myers Award winner, an NAACP Image Award Winner, and the recipient of multiple Coretta Scott King honors. He’s also the 2020–2021 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. His many books include All American Boys (cowritten with Brendan Kiely), When I Was the Greatest, The Boy in the Black Suit, Stamped, As Brave as You, For Every One, the Track series (Ghost, Patina, Sunny, and Lu), Look Both Ways, and Long Way Down, which received a Newbery Honor, a Printz Honor, and a Coretta Scott King Honor. He lives in Washington, DC. You can find his ramblings at JasonWritesBooks.com.
Jason Griffin created the artwork for My Name Is Jason. Mine Too, written by Jason Reynolds. He’s an artist and master collaborator, who has shown his art in major cities all over the world. his most recent projects include a commissioned mural for the children’s cancer wing at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, as well as a residency at the new contemporary art museum in Amsterdam, Het HEM. He currently creates in Queens, New York.
Christine Lively is a librarian at Wakefield High School in Virginia. She writes a monthly column for the Teen Librarian Toolbox blog of the School Library Journal about teens who fight the system to change their world. Christine is a Certified Life Coach for Young People ages 14-24 at christinelively.com. Christ