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‘Look Both Ways’ by Jason Reynolds – Carnegie winner 2021

This year the coveted Carnegie medal was won by the American author Jason Reynolds for his ten story-chapter novel, Look Both Ways. It is published by Knights Of with cover illustration by Selom Sunu.


Published by: Knights Of, 2019. Available from Amazon.

Some details about the 2021 winner Jason Reynolds and of the Carnegie Shadowers Award, Manjeet Mann, my review of Look Both Ways, and a brief history of the Carnegie medal.

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About Jason Reynolds

Jason Reynolds photo by Nathan Bajar
Jason Reynolds. Photo: Nathan Bajar.

Jason Reynolds, US National Ambassador for Children’s Literature, was born in 1983 in Washington D.C. As a child he loved rap and poetry. Since he was first published in 2014, he has sold over 6 million books, and has won many prestigious awards in America for his poetry collections, stories and novels. He is the author of Miles Morales: Spiderman; the much loved and much quoted Run series of stories about Ghost, Patina, Sunny and Lu; Long Way Down and many other award-winning books.

Who does Jason Reynolds write for?

His target audience is black American kids, especially boys.

“Who else is there to write for, as far as I’m concerned,” he asks. He knows his audience well. They’re book haters.

“I know that many book haters are boys. I know that many of these book-hating boys don’t actually hate books, they hate boredom.”

He began as a poet, and is still a poet. He writes for kids on the street who love music, who love rap. He writes urban fiction for and about kids who don’t know where they’re going yet. Perhaps his most famous quote is from Ghost: “You can’t run away from who you are, but what you can do is run towards who you want to be.” This quote encouraging hope and endeavour is a rallying cry for all young people born in underprivileged and troubled backgrounds, the young people who feature in much of his writing.

One of his most acclaimed verse novels is Long Way Down (2019) about teenage gun violence. This is the world his target audience knows about, and it’s a world he knew.

When he was a teenager his friend was killed. Reynolds and his friends felt “an anger, a pain, like a cancer metastasizing by the second, spreading around and through. Knew his death had changed them chemically, and that [they] could do, perhaps, what [they] never knew [they] could do before. Kill.”

This tragedy, and the emotion that followed it, inspired him to write Long Way Down.

‘Long Way Down’

In 2019 his novel Long Way Down was published in Great Britain and was shortlisted for the Carnegie medal.

Long Way Down is a free verse novel about street honour. A brief summary of the story is that fifteen year-old Will sees his brother shot and killed by a gang, and vows to “follow the rules” and seek revenge. His descent to the street with gun in pocket is like a descent into hell: at each floor, the lift stops and the ghost of a dead person gets in and tells their story. The final person in the lift is Will’s dead brother, Shawn.

It’s a powerful read, and it isn’t just appealing to the target audience. It received many awards and Honors in America, and a new edition, graphically illustrated by Danica Novgorodoff, won the Yoto Greenaway Prize 2022. This was the first time for 60 years that the award had been given for a graphic novel. The judges were said to be ‘blown away’ by the quality of her watercolour illustrations.

Jason Reynolds and banned books

Some of Jason Reynolds’ books, including Long Way Down, Stamped and All American Boys have been banned from schools and libraries because of their themes of gun violence, racism, police brutality, profanity and drugs. He has spoken about his views on censorship in several YouTube interviews which you can view online. In 2021 Reynolds was named Inaugural Chair of Banned Book Week.

There is an excellent interview in The Guardian with both Jason Reynolds and Joseph Coelho, in which they discuss giving children a greater variety of poetry and fiction, offering the chance to read about things that they connect with, and censorhip by adults. 

See also my blog post on Patrick Ness, whose novel Different for Boys contains whole passages that have been ‘self-censored’ by the author.

New book published 2023: ‘Stuntboy, In Between-Time’

A new book from Jason Reynolds is always a cause for celebration. Young readers will be excited to know of the publication of Stuntboy, In Between-Time, the eagerly awaited sequel to his massively popular book about ‘the greatest young super-hero you’ve never heard of’, Stuntboy, in the Meantime. Both books are illustrated by Raúl the Third.

‘Look Both Ways’ – the 2021 Carnegie Medal winner

Jason wins the medal in 2021 for a very different book: his jazzy, funny, tender and child-centred novel, Look Both Ways.

In his Carnegie acceptance speech he said:

This book contains a lot but most importantly it’s just a fun story. I’m not interested in teaching anything, I’m only interested in bearing witness to the young people’s lives. And as long as young people continue to allow me to do so, I will continue to do so.

About ‘Look Both Ways’

There’s no doubt that the book is written for and about American children. The young British reader might struggle to understand the lifestyle and cultural references, but they’re on their own. There are no concessions to the non-American reader. They have to absorb it or ignore it, although for many British children, the American-ness will be hugely attractive.

My thoughts on ‘Look Both Ways’

I have to say that the first story in Look Both Ways left me cool. Too much bogey-chat (silly Uncle league), too uneventful, and I’m not fluent in street American. I recognised the underlayer of kids with problems just getting on with things, coping with life, but I wondered if the stories were going to be powerful enough to grip me and the child reader.

And then I read the second story, and I was completely won over. This little gang of kids, the Low Cuts, could break your heart. They need a whole book to themselves.

By the third story I was saying this man writes like a dream; poet, rapper, playing with words and ideas. He is master of the great American sentence, leaping and flying with language and images like a baseball player.

And so it continues. Look Both Ways is full of adorable characters and great moments. Each story is different, comical, sad, exuberant; the children and their street talk are carefully observed and splendidly portrayed, with tender and unspoken moments for the young reader to wonder at. These great, ordinary characters and their everyday, extraordinary moments are set against the alien and familiar world of their home streets and the dangerous background of school: “The hallway was a minefield, and there were hundreds of active mines dressed in T-shirts and jeans.

Favourite characters

You will love these kids. They are totally recognisable. You will love it when familiar characters crop up, or drift by, but they’ve had their turn, and new characters have stepped forward. By now you’re eager to hear their story. Perhaps my favourite character is Simeon carrying little Kenzi on his back. Perhaps it’s Stevie, who never gets it right. Or sad little Fatima Moss with her endless lists and notes. Perhaps it’s Pia Foster, the fierce skateboarder of Skitter Hitter.

Actually my favourite character of all is Satchmo, and my favourite story is Satchmo’s Master Plan – a boy versus a dog. It’s even better that any Scaredy Squirrel story – can you believe that? I won’t spoil Satchmo’s wonderful story by telling you any more – but I defy you to finish it without tears in your eyes!

I’m not saying that Look Both Ways is an easy read. Not all the stories have the same weight or interest, and might be baffling for younger readers. Jason Reynolds’ wild and wonderful style, playful and ambitious, will task some readers, though others will rejoice in it and enjoy trying to imitate it. For example, I’m thinking of the story called Ookabooka Land. The central character, Cynthia, is a joker, like her granddad, the class clown, and the despair and delight of her teacher. Her stories are free-flowing and almost inpenetrable. “I don’t know what’s going on?” I can hear the reader saying. Just go with it. Enjoy it.

Look Both Ways is an exhilarating read. One thing is for sure; you and your child will never have read anything like it!

A child’s review of ‘Look Both Ways’

Children’s books are of course intended for children to read, so here’s a review from nine-year-old Eda, known to her family as Eda the Reader:

I didn’t think the cover was exciting enough, but I like the book. I didn’t really notice it was American except they use words like dollar. It could have been anywhere. I like the characters and their personalities, and the way you go from one story to another, with different people, which makes it interesting. My favourite story was The Low Cuts Strikes Again, because the kids are funny. They steal money but only loose change. I would recommend Look Both Ways for anyone between nine and fifteen. I had never heard of Jason Reynolds before but I might read something else by him.

‘Eda the Reader’ reads ‘Look Both Ways’ by Jason Reynolds
‘Eda the Reader’ reads ‘Look Both Ways’ by Jason Reynolds

The 2021 Carnegie Shadowers Award

The CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Shadowing Scheme brings thousands of young people in schools and public libraries together to discuss the shortlisted titles and choose their own favourite book. The 2021 Carnegie Shadowers award goes to Run Rebel, by playwright, producer and novelist Manjeet Mann.

Run Rebel is a “trailblazing verse novel that thunders with rhythm, heart and soul”. Published by Penguin Random House.


Published by Penguin Random House. Available from Amazon.

Run Rebel by Manjeet Mann
Manjeet Mann
Manjeet Mann

About the Carnegie Medal

The Carnegie Medal is named after Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish-American philanthropist who established over 2,800 libraries in the English-speaking world. He died in 1919, and in 1936 the British Library Association established the Carnegie Medal to celebrate the centenary of his birth. The award was to be given annually to the author of the most outstanding book for children and young adults written in the English language.

The first Carnegie medal was won by Arthur Ransome for Pigeon Post. Since then it been awarded 82 times and eight authors have won it twice. It is administered by CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) and described by them as the oldest and most prestigious award for children’s literature.

Its sister award is the Kate Greenaway Medal, awarded for the best illustration of a children’s book published in English in the UK. See also my review of the 2021 Greenaway winner, Small in the City by Sydney Smith.

My own Carnegie books

Two of my own books, Granny was a Buffer Girl (1986) and Dear Nobody (1991) were Carnegie medal winners, so I know well how utterly thrilled Jason Reynolds will be with this award. My sincere congratulations go to him and to Manjeet Mann for their outstanding achievements. I can well imagine their great joy and wish them every success with their novels.

Granny was a Buffer Girl: This is a collecion of linked short stories about three generations of a working-class family, set in Sheffield between 1930 and 1980. Each of the main characters featured in the stories is a teenager.

Dear Nobody: Set in Sheffield in the 1980s, Dear Nobody is a two-narrator young adults’ novel telling the story of Helen (17) and Chris (18). They think they know what their future plans are, until Helen discovers she is pregnant.

In 1994, Willa and Old Miss Annie was Highly Commended.

Your comments

Children are asked to write short stories all the time at school. Can you recommend any other collections or individual stories to inspire them? For instance, many years ago I read Doris Lessing’s Through the Tunnel, and I’ve never forgotten it.


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Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child, and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody, and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody. She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her brand new novel for ages 10–14, The Haunted Hills, is out now, as is her novel for adults, Rose Doran Dreams. See the About me page for more information.

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