Extra Extra! Viral Video Sparks Middle Grade Debut! A Q&A with Dwayne Reed of Simon B. Rhymin’
Who amongst you remembers this?
Cute, right? Well that little homemade video by 4th grade teacher Dwayne Reed currently clocks in at a whopping 1.8 million views on YouTube. And ever since its massive viral success, Mr. Reed has been busy. He teaches, sure, but he also presents at educator conferences across this great big beautiful country of ours.
You see where this is going. Yep. Dude wrote a book. Now take a look at this cover and see if you can see what element popped out at me right away:
Do you see it? There, just to the left of the “R” in “Rhymin'”? See it now? If you just said to yourself, “Hey! Isn’t that the Willis Tower in Chicago?” then you are dead on the money. So few children’s books are set in Chicago or the Chicago area that I knew right away this was someone I wanted to talk to.
Betsy Bird: Hi Mr. Reed! Thanks so much for talking with me today. So back in 2016, in your very first year of teaching, you do this video welcoming students in and it goes viral. Now you’ve had almost a year here of distanced and virtual learning. These are some fairly major shifts to your everyday life. How are you holding up right now? Are you still teaching?
Dwayne Reed: Hey Betsy! Thanks for having me on the blog. Yes, I am still teaching. I teach both fourth and fifth grade Language Arts in Chicago right now. I’m holding up as well as anybody can hold up in 2020-2021! Lol. Thankfully, I have a great support system—including my wife— and there are a lot of reasons for me to maintain hope. Some of the shifts throughout this year of virtual school have reminded me of my first year of teaching…lots of challenges and new situations. But many of these challenges also present opportunities for success. What’s cool for me is being able to witness successes—big and small—in the lives of my scholars. Even though a lot of our interactions have been through a screen, they know their teacher loves them, and that means the world to me.
BB: And you’ve got a book coming out! Congrats! Was this something you always wanted to write or did the viral video just jumpstart the process?
DR: I think that I’ve always wanted to tell the story of my protagonist, Simon Barnes, because he’s so similar to who I was as a kid. Initially, I started to tell stories about kids like Simon through raps and videos. Once those videos became popular, the opportunity to write a book came into my reach. I honestly believe that everybody’s got a book in them, so it’s really just about getting down to it and doing it.
BB: So I moved to the Chicago area from NYC about 6 years ago and one thing that really bugged me about kids books, when I started looking at them, was how few were set in Chicago. But you took the time to give your title a Chicago setting. I love that even on your cover of your book you can see the skyline in the background. Why was it important to you to set your book in here?
DR: It was so important for me to set my book in Chicago, my hometown. There are a lot of narratives about Chicago out there, and it seems like many of them aren’t originating from people who live here. The people who are here in Chicago—who love it here—should be the ones telling stories of our city. I also wanted to provide a counterpoint to the negative news stories that circulate about Chicago. Our neighborhoods are full of interesting people experiencing joy, happiness, sorrow, and everything in between. Being able to use literature to depict the life of a young kid living in Chicago is a powerful thing for me.
BB: What’s the origin story of this book? Where did Simon originate? And have you ever tested out your ideas on your students at all?
DR: The origin story of Simon is my own story. I guess, in a way, Simon B. Rhymin’ is a letter to my 11-year-old self. Like Simon, I was a short, big-headed kid who was afraid to speak up to others. I had the heart to fight for my community, but I didn’t have the voice, or at least, I didn’t know I had the voice. My friends would have to stick up for me, and I would then get mad at myself.
So, when I started to write Simon’s story, I gave him the extra confidence that I longed for as a kid. My hope is that some young readers out there might connect with Simon and realize that they can speak up, even if they’re small or a little shy.
As for my scholars, they are the toughest critics of all! Lol. If an idea ain’t gon’ fly with my fifth graders, it ain’t gon’ fly anywhere else. So, yeah, I do sometimes share ideas with my kids. I always think that if I can make it in my classroom, I can make it anywhere, and it’s my scholars who push me to make everything better.
BB: Is Simon going to be a one-off or would you like to make other books in the future?
DR: There will be more than just one…more Simon to come!
BB: And finally, what’s going on in your life next?
DR: Right now, my wife and I are expecting our first baby! (No, we’re not going to name our son Simon, haha). We also decided to move into a new house, just to make things even more busy. Besides that, I’m always trying to find ways to love and to lift up the kids in my community.
And since we’re on the subject, how about some videos?
Like, say, a book trailer?
Or this recent video conducted with the bookstore Politics & Prose?
And this one with Kim Carson:
Or with Good freakin’ Morning America!
I’m not gonna lie. That’s a lot of videos in a short span of time. A tip of my hat to you, Mr. Reed. Wow.
Many thanks to Katharine McAnarney and the folks at Little, Brown for this Q&A. Simon B. Rhymin’ is on bookstore shelves now, available where all good books are sold.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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