School gets virtual visit from bestselling author

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Joe Hadsall, The Joplin Globe, Mo.
·4 min read
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Apr. 8—NEOSHO, Mo. — Author Jason Reynolds sat back and waited for the question about his book "Long Way Down" that he has presumably been asked countless times.

On Wednesday, as Anthony Lopes, a 16-year-old student at the Jefferson Street Campus of Neosho High School, asked it, about 30 of his classmates gasped in anticipation for the answer.

Lopes said that a character, Shawn, at the end of the book asks "Are you coming?"

"We have so many ideas of what that meant, and we've argued in class about the things we think," Lopes said. "Did you mean for something to happen after that?"

Released in 2017, the story has earned several prestigious awards for young adult titles, including being named as a Newbery Honor Book, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and a Printz Honor Book, as well as awards from Entertainment Weekly, Buzzfeed and Vulture.

More important to English teacher Samantha Kibel, the title and other works by the New York Times bestselling writer have earned fandom from her students, who have devoured much of his other works. When Kibel and Ryan Sheffield, director of the Jefferson Street Campus, made the announcement of the virtual tour in March, they could hear cheers and applause throughout the entire building.

"Authors like Jason make my job easier," Kibel said. "As an English teacher, I've noticed that kids aren't exactly hyped to read. When I started questioning why, I found out it is because they are picky, and they should be. They like to read good literature that they can relate to."

The author connected with Neosho students Wednesday as part of a book tour organized by publisher Simon and Schuster. Reynolds is also the author of "As Brave as You," "Look Both Ways," "Miles Morales Spider-Man" and "All American Boys."

Via videoconference, he answered questions from Lopes and student Sal Torres, who were chosen as ambassadors for the event to ask questions other students wanted to be posed.

Reynolds covered a lot of ground:

—How he deals with anxiety. "Over time I've learned what my triggers are and I know what my body does when I'm anxious, even if nothing is happening. ... I know what my triggers are and how to manage them before it becomes a full-blown episode."

—What kind of modern music he's listening to. He said he appreciates what Moneybagg Yo, Pooh Shiesty, YoungBoy, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and Chika are creating, and he noted that criticism of music from older generations is something that happens with every generation.

"Yeah, we talk trash about you, but my generation, they trash talked us," Reynolds said. "My generation was Tupac and Biggie, but Run DMC is what rap was to them. Every generation has their take on music."

—The role of masculinity not being reserved to men and male characters showing more emotion than stereotypes would normally call for.

"Masculinity, no one knows what it is," Reyonlds said. "For a cat like me, raised by my mother, all the things people associated with being masculine, my mom did. A man has to provide for their kids, but my mom did that. A man has to protect their kids, but my mom did that too."

—The power future generations have. When bringing up how he lived through Y2K, he noted how others thought of innovations that prevented similar situations.

"Your generation is going to be the one to figure out how the problems of today never happen again, and I want to thank you all in advance."

Kaley Linehan, 16, said she appreciated everything Reynolds had to say.

Except about the ending of "Long Way Down."

Linehan said the book is filled with things that make her think. It is about Will, a 15-year-old who lives in an apartment building and is planning to avenge the death of his brother, Shawn. Will grabs a gun stashed away by his brother and embarks on his mission. But the elevator in his apartment building has different plans, Linehan said.

"On the way out the door, the elevator stops on each floor," Linehan said. "On each floor someone important who died in the past talks to him."

The story ends with a massive cliffhanger, which led to Lopes' question.

Reynolds' answer was a perfect nonanswer: "The book ends exactly as it is supposed to end," he said. "People try to frame it by asking me, 'What do you think happened?' But I can't answer that because if I do, the conversation stops."

"That was not the answer I was looking for," Linehan said. "I figured he wouldn't give an answer because it would ruin something."