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Jason Reynolds: Grab the Mic Newsletter

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This is the May newsletter by Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

When I was a kid, bedtime was bad times. Not because I didn’t like pillows and sheets, or my Pound Puppy blanket. Wait, do you know what the Pound Puppies are? Were? Are? No? Okay, well, basically they were these little stuffed dogs, each one with a different set of spots, and different-colored floppy ears. But they all had sad eyes. Not sure why I loved them so much, but as soon as I finish writing this letter, I’m going to call my mother and ask her why she surrounded me with images of abandoned puppies, which you would think would be the reason bedtime was hard for me. But . . . nope. The reason I struggled so much to have a good night after saying goodnight was because I was afraid of the dark.

It’s hard to describe what the dark felt like to me. But I’ll try.

The dark was thick and it seemed to make the skin heavy on my bones.

The dark was empty and suddenly it felt like it could disappear me.

The dark was cold, even in the summer. Even with a blanket tucked under my chin.

The dark was silent. So silent that it made all the invisible things in my room seem loud.

The dark was . . . scary. There’s no other way to say it.

So after I snuck out of my room and crawled into bed with my parents at least a thousand times (who am I kidding . . . five thousand times), my mother decided she would start leaving my bedroom door cracked, figuring a sliver of light is all I’d need to find slumber. But the hallway and kitchen were too loud. My older brother was testing out his stereo speakers, and my mother was on the phone joking around with her sisters, and there was no way I could sleep through all that. So she finally decided to get me a night light. A tiny little plug-in that provided the amount of glow a candle flame creates. Just enough to see my toys on the floor and to ensure they weren’t moving on their own. Until I saw things moving across the wall. Big things. And whenever I would jump up to see what they were, they would attack. And whenever they would attack I would fight back, swinging at the air until frantically snatching the blanket over my head and hoping for morning.

This was an every-night thing.

Until I realized what was moving across the wall, was me. My shadow. And when I tried to fight it, it would fight me. Because it was me. My arms and legs kicking in bed, and the long shadow of those same arms and legs moving across the orange dim of my room.

Once I figured this out—okay, so . . . I have to be honest with you. I didn’t figure this out. Seriously, I had no idea what was going on. I went crying to my older brother, and he told me what was happening. Told me how shadows worked, and then showed me how to make shapes with my hands to make shadow puppets on the walls.

A dog. A rabbit. A bird. All of which were described by my older brother as a “dog monster,” a “rabbit monster” and a “bird monster,” because that’s the kind of big brother he was. But whenever I would climb into bed and make these “monsters” come to life on the walls of my room, they didn’t scare me anymore. Because they were mine. And they were me. I was in control. I made them so I could talk to them, tell them how I felt, tell them to protect me from any moving toys while I slept, especially since the Pound Puppies apparently weren’t going to do it.

Eventually my mother took the night light out of my room. Back to darkness. And at first, I would put my hands in the air and bend them into the shapes of animals. And even though I could no longer see them on the wall, I believed them to be there. And I still do.

I still know it’s me who creates my fear, and me who creates the protectors that save me from it. The only difference is, 25 years later, those shadow puppets have left the wall and now live on the page.

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  1. “Suck it up,” I say. “You need to learn to be tougher.” He looks at me with fear and sadness.
    “I can’t,” he says.
    “Don’t be a wimp,” I say.
    He finally cracks. “I’M NOT A WIMP!” he screams, tears in his eyes, and runs back inside.
    There I stand, alone, and filled with sadness. I close my eyes, and I’m plunged in darkness… then I see.
    It’s me, back at the wrestling room, little 10 year old me.
    “Dad, am I doing it right?” I see myself ask.
    “Just pay attention, and stop interrupting me!” he scolds me.
    I can remember that darkness, the one that consumes me when I don’t do something right. Be strong. Be tough. You’re not strong. You’re weak. You need to prove your worthiness, you’ll never deserve it.
    I watch as he moves on to help my little sister with her wrestling move, as he smiles and starts to joke and play around. I watch her smile and chase him, and I feel my arms start to shake and the tears starting to hang at my eyelid, torturing me to keep it together, as I continue my movements with my partner.
    I can’t help but feel… nothing. Close your eyes…
    And I’m back. I run over to by now annoyed brother, and say,
    “Don’t be mad please, trust me, I know it hurts.”
    This is what keeps me awake during those dark nights.

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