GILLETTE — What did two Gillette teenage girls share in common with Washington, D.C., man, born in 1983, who happens to be a best-selling author of young adult books and has sold more than 6 million copies since 2014?
More than meets the eye, as it turns out.
The fact that Gillette’s two junior high schools — Sage Valley and Twin Spruce — were among 11 schools in the nation selected to welcome the Library of Congress’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature came and went without fanfare.
Jason Reynolds, author of 13 books, including 2019’s National Book Award finalist “Look Both Ways,” visited, virtually, of course due to COVID-19, with both schools’ students in December.
But inside the worlds of those two schools, Reynolds’s visit was big news. Students, teachers and librarians were excited to make such an exclusive list, and it felt noteworthy that Reynolds would spend one of his limited stops talking to students in Campbell County School District.
Perhaps none felt that more acutely than Sage Valley’s Bailey Carbary and Twin Spruce’s Ava Schifferns, the two students who would serve as virtual ambassadors to Wyoming, Campbell County and Gillette. They were selected to ask him questions and hold court with him, while the rest of their classmates at both schools watched on a livestream.
They were nervous, they said. Bailey, now a freshman at Thunder Basin High School, because she felt like she was meeting a celebrity; Reynolds is her favorite author.
Ava, now a freshman at Campbell County High School, because what if she tripped over her words?
“All of my friends are watching it live as it was happening,” she said. “I was worried I was going to say something weird and then I’m going to try to correct myself, and it’s just going to be really awkward.”
The girls were naturals as interviewers, though, and classmates learned as much about them as they did the famous author after he parlayed questions posed to him back into questions for the girls to answer.
“I think this is an unfair question to ask young people, but I’m going to ask you anyway,” Reynolds said into his computer’s camera. “Do you know, or do you think you know, who you might want to be or what you might want to do — those are two separate questions, by the way, I want to be clear — who you might want to be or what you might want to do when you get older?”
That’s how Reynolds learned that Ava wanted to be a writer, which was commonality enough between the two, but then she upped the connection one more degree. She said she also had backup plans in case that didn’t work out, including possibly becoming a psychologist.
Reynolds could relate.
“When I got shaky with the writing thing, I went to college, and I was like, ‘I’m going to be a psychologist,’” he said. “That’s what I was going to do, too. I was like, ‘If I study psychology, I’ll just be studying the human mind, which is all writing really is, the exploration of the human mind, right?’”
And just like that, they seemed like fast friends.
Bailey’s moment of connection came before the cameras were turned on for all to see. She said they had maybe 10 minutes to chat and get to know each other before the event started, and before Reynolds had even joined the call, his producer asked her which of his books was her favorite.
That was simple, Bailey said. No contest. It was “The Boy in the Black Suit.”
You should tell him that, the producer said.
“And I did, and I found out that it’s his favorite book that he’s written,” Bailey said. “And that’s probably what I’ll take with me for a really long time.”
The students and teachers took notice of the girls’ performance as interviewers.
“All of the English teachers were sitting back there staring me down, and that was also kind of nerve-racking,” Ava said. “They were like, ‘That was great!’ I didn’t know who half of them were, but I felt really proud of myself.”
“After it happened, it was mainly my teachers who were telling me, ‘Good job,’” Bailey said. “But after it happened for me, kids that never talk to me, like, the popular kids and football players and stuff, were all like saying hi to me.”
Their questions, and Reynolds’s responses, had the power to captivate not only their contemporaries but those much older than they.
Ava’s mom, Rebecca, said she and Ava’s grandfather were wowed by the interview.
“It was exciting, of course, to watch my daughter doing that, but I had never read the books,” Rebecca said. “My dad had never read the books. We both walked away like, ‘Man, I’ve got to read his books.’ I have since read two. … Even though he’s writing for young adults, like, I enjoyed the books a lot. And I took a lot away from them.”
Her dad wanted to read them, too. “We sent him some, too. He’s that personable, that even my dad was like, ‘Wow, I was so impressed with his answers, and his outlook and his process.’”
The girls’ back-and-forth with Reynolds also caught the eye of those in charge of the Library of Congress’s National Book Festival.
It’s typically an in-person event, said Darcy Acord, youth services librarian at the Campbell County Public Library.
But COVID-19 will disrupt that yet again this year.
“Usually, it’s librarians like me, boring old people, interviewing, but they decided, ‘Why wouldn’t we have young people interviewing young people’s authors?’” Acord said. “Because they’ve got just that energy. So I think they reached out to a lot of young people throughout the nation, but they really liked Bailey and Ava’s energy, their maturity. They were very well spoken, and so they wanted to reach out to them to offer them a chance to be student interviewers for the National Book Festival.”
And so they did.
Weeks ago, Ava and Bailey joined forces again to interview Tahereh Mafi, a young adult author known for the best-selling Shatter Me series, on her latest book “An Emotion of Great Delight.” The book is her second stab at realistic fiction, and the first, “A Very Large Expanse of Sea,” was longlisted for the National Book Award in 2018.
“The book is about this girl, she’s in high school, and she’s kind of going through a lot of things,” Ava said of “An Emotion of Great Delight.”
“She has a really rocky relationship with her father, and her best friend thinks she has a thing going on with her brother, so her best friend is being kind of judgmental, I guess is the word for it. It’s kind of her trying to figure out how to navigate all of it, because her brother just passed away and she’s trying not to blame her father for it.”
The Library of Congress’s National Book Festival will take place virtually on Sept. 17-26. The girls’ interview with Mafi will air Sept. 25. They’ve already taped the interview, they said, and it seemed to have gone well.
“I asked her if, while she’s writing a book, if her opinion of the world changes, like how she sees the world,” Bailey said. “Her answers to questions like that were really inspiring. That’s kind of what I can take away, to take some of her answers and try to apply them to my life.”
“I’d say she wasn’t as personable as Jason, which was kind of something to get used to because I was used to him being really personable with it,” Ava said. “But she gave really thought-provoking answers. You’d ask her a question and she’d take a second to think about it and then give a really well thought-out answer.”
Despite feeling more prepared for this second interview, it was actually more nerve-racking for them.
“Doing the Tahereh Mafi interview, I felt like I was more nervous doing that than doing the Jason Reynolds interview, because his felt more like it was just going to be shared with my community, and this one feels like it’s shared with America,” Ava said. “It’s like, ‘Whoa.’”
They’re both looking forward to taking media or journalism courses in their respective high schools, and perhaps further perfecting their interview techniques. They’re both interested in writing, and these conversations with thoughtful, successful authors have helped strengthen that interest.
No matter what they do in the future, though, they will always have the memory of bringing multiple bestselling authors alive and off the page as real people for their friends, their community and America at large.
They did so in the middle of a pandemic, when many across the country turned to books for comfort. They did so as teenagers, with no real experience at interviewing anybody. When one stops to think about it, it’s like, whoa.