Jason Reynolds: Grab the Mic, May Edition

This is a guest post by Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. His most recent piece ran in April.

A question I get all the time—like, all the time—is, “Jason, are you ever worried people won’t like your books?”

And before I tell you my reply, I first want to tell you a story.

The day before my first novel, “When I Was The Greatest,” was to be released, I went to lunch at a restaurant across from my house. I was a ball of nerves, so much so that I couldn’t even eat what I’d ordered. The owner of the restaurant, Craig, came from the kitchen to where I was sitting.

“J, what’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

“That ain’t what your face is saying. Your face is saying something’s definitely going on,” he said.

So I told him the truth, that I was nervous. Actually, nervous is an understatement. I was freaking out.

“What if people read my book and … hate it?” I took a sip of water, but could barely swallow it. The mere thought of failure, or even criticism, had seemed to close my throat.

Craig took a seat, folded his hands on the table.

“Let me tell you something,” he said. “If someone were to come to me, someone special, and ask me to make them a perfect meal, do you know what I’d do?”

I shook my head.

“I’d go to the butcher and have him cut me a perfect steak, something with the right amount of marble. Something tender. Then I would go to the best garden I could find and get the perfect vegetables to go with that steak, maybe carrots, maybe asparagus, some mushrooms and onions. Then I’d come back to the restaurant and I’d marinate the steak for a few days to make sure all the flavors soak into the meat. Then I’d roast the veggies so that they’d have a slight char and all the natural flavors are activated. Then I’d cook the steak to the perfect temperature, and maybe to round out the meal I’d add a baked potato.” He paused here. “You still with me?”

“I’m with you,” I said, wondering where all this was going.

“Okay, so after I got everything cooked perfectly, I’d plate it all … perfectly. Make it real pretty. And I’d the set the table perfectly, too. Even add a candle and a tablecloth. Sparkling water. Wine. Everything … perfect. And if my customer — my special customer — cut into that perfect steak, took a bite and didn’t like it, well … I would assume that’s just because he was in the mood for fish.” Craig smirked. “But not because I didn’t cook a perfect steak.”

“But how would you even know the steak is perfect?” I asked.

“If the steak is what you intended it to be, it’s a perfect steak.” Craig pushed back from the table, got up and returned to the kitchen of his restaurant without saying another word.

What he was trying to explain to me is that when it comes to people not liking the thing you’ve made, or maybe even the person you are, it doesn’t always have to do with you, and really it often has to do with what they wanted. What their expectations were. And we have no control over that. If I’m a good artist, but my father wanted me to be a good athlete, but I’m not, that doesn’t mean my art is bad. It just means my father preferred points over painting.

So don’t worry about criticism. It usually has nothing to do with you.

Okay, so back to the beginning. What do I say when people ask me, “Jason, are you ever worried people won’t like your books?”

Well, my response is always, “Of course. Terrified!”

Hey, I didn’t say I’ve mastered it all. And the truth is, maybe that’s because it’s hard not to care what young people think about me because I care so much about you. Or maybe I’m still trying to make the perfect steak.

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