There are some authors who change the way you look at literature. Through their words, you are sent to unexpected places and leave transformed by the journey. You connect to characters whose stories, whether foreign or familiar, hit you where it counts — in the heart. Jacqueline Woodson did that for me.
The first Woodson book I read was Visiting Day, illustrated by James Ransome. In the tale of a girl traveling with her grandma to see her incarcerated father, a world opened up. It was a place where a tough issue affecting children could be turned into a lyrical and moving story, a place where words could affirm, comfort and heal. That power for creating poignant — and enduring — testimonies is a Woodson hallmark.
Through her picture books, middle-grade and young adult novels, Woodson takes her characters — and readers — on emotional odysseys. Young people like Clover and Annie, Lili and Lonnie C. Motion, Lafayette, Ty’ree and Charlie and Melanin Sun spring to life. They pull at something inside us that lingers long after their stories end.
Woodson, author of more than 20 books, has been hailed for the beauty, power and depth of her stories. She has won many of the industry’s top accolades for her work — Newbery Honor, Coretta Scott King Award, Los Angeles Times Book Prize. And in 2006, she added one of the greatest honors for young adult literature — the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement.
For Day 22, we are proud to celebrate vanguard author, Jacqueline Woodson:
What place did writing and reading have in your youth? Did those early experiences help shape your future as an author?
My mom was a single mom (she and my dad separated when I was two-months-old) who worked full time. When I was around eight-years-old, my grandmother came from South Carolina to live with us but, always, our after-school ritual was this: My older brother, sister, younger brother and I walked each weekday from our school to the library a block from our house. There we did our homework and when done, we read. I was a slow reader and spent a lot of my younger years in the picture book section reading the same books over and over. At 5:45 p.m., just before the library closed at 6 p.m., my mother picked us up and took us home. She made sure we all had library cards and that they were in good standing. We had many books at home (mostly ones we borrowed from the library). My mom didn’t allow us to watch much television and was constantly saying, “You need to be reading.” — Which is a phrase that made me so cranky as a kid! I wrote poetry and songs and silly rhymes all the time because I loved doing so. I made up lots of stories to entertain my siblings with and I was always excited about any kind of writing assignment our teachers gave us. So when I look back, my coming of age as a writer and reader started because of economics and my mother’s philosophies about education and reading being a tool for moving forward in one’s life. I always said I wanted to be a writer but thought it would be a hobby rather than a life. Of course my big dream was to ONLY write but no one was encouraging that (straight-forwardly) but even as my mom and grandma discouraged me being A Writer as a career, they were subversively (whether they knew this or not) showing me the road to a life as a writer.
How did your first book, Last Summer With Maizon, come to be? What was your publication journey? How did you decide to make Maizon’s and Margaret’s story a trilogy?
I started writing Last Summer With Maizon when I was still in college. I knew I wanted to write about things that mattered to me. One summer, I took a writing workshop at the New School with a woman named Margaret “Bunny” Gable. In this class, writers I had cherished as a child would visit to sit in, have their own work critiqued and critique the work of others. I was the only person of color in the class and probably one of the youngest. I handed in a piece about a white family who wins a lottery and moves to the suburbs — very Judy Blume, M.E. Kerr, etc. inspired. Bunny said I should write what I knew and the next time around I nervously handed in a piece from Last Summer with Maizon and Bunny thought it worthy of reading aloud to class — anonymously, thank goodness — but everyone knew it was me since I was the only brown person and the story was all about brown people, I guess they kind of figured it out. An editor from Bantam Doubleday Dell (now Random House) happened to be there and asked if I’d send the novel to her. I did. She ended up quitting very soon afterward and the novel sat around with no editor for a while until Wendy Lamb got ahold of it and worked with me on it. Bantam Doubleday Dell/Random House went on to publish a number of my books but I was writing a lot and so a number of other publishers published my work as well. Wendy was the one who suggested making Last Summer With Maizon a trilogy. I wrote Maizon At Blue Hill after getting lots of fanmail from people saying they wanted to know what happened to her while she was at boarding school. Then Wendy said let’s just make a trilogy. Sounded cool to me at the time but by the time I got to Between Madison and Palmetto – -I was SO ready to move on to some new characters! At the time, it was the only trilogy out there about girls of color. I’m hoping that’s since changed.
Can you please share the demands and rewards of writing for middle-graders? What inspired you to start writing for other ages?
I found my voice as a writer of middle grade fiction. For many years, it was the age that came to me and all of my characters seemed to be somewhere between 8 and 11. So I just wrote and wrote. Then I started getting more sure of myself as a writer and started venturing out. I love Young Adult fiction because I feel like I have this HUGE canvas and can paint in a complicated landscape and take my time doing it. I love Middle Grade because it’s immediate and clear and in the moment. I love Picture Books because I can write poetry and the urgency moves the book along quickly. With picture books, I have no time to fool around and take my time with words. That’s why I’m usually working on two books at once — usually a YA alongside the picture book. That way, when things get too urgent and I can’t figure out how to move through it, I go work on the young adult and just let myself take my time with the telling. That’s not to say there isn’t an urgency to the YA. It’s just a different journey for me to that urgency.
You said in one interview: “My writing comes from something I know deeply and then I put into and onto my characters.” Please talk about that. How does your past and present inform your writing?
I do believe that everyone has a gift and mine is the gift of writing. I think this is what I was called to do in life and whether people knew it or not, they helped me on this journey — family, teachers, editors, friends, strangers . . . The thoughts my characters have and things they do are informed by my own beliefs and values and thoughts about the world. I do sometimes write about things I know nothing about (Witness Protection Program, mothers abandoning their children, being raised by fathers, siblings separated, parents dying). Sometimes I have to do research. Sometimes I just have to sit with my character and feel out what this means to them — or rather, what it means to me and by extension to my characters. Sometimes my characters are so complete that it feels like I just sit down and let them tell their stories. But most times, it’s not like that. Each book is a journey and I learn from that journey. Everything I do and see and think and experience informs who I am and therefore informs my writing. I can’t walk through this world with blinders on or else I don’t grow. I think there are those who are afraid to let the world in — to see the injustices, the unkindness, the fear, etc. I can’t afford to be one of those people because it would mean not growing — and if I can’t grow, I can’t write. So some days, I’m like this big bruise walking through the world — and it’s a bit awful but it comes with what it means to be a writer and so I do what I need to do — take deep breaths, find things to smile about, and write.
In another interview, you say that your writing is character-driven: “I have a character or few characters in my head and they just start speaking.” Do you ever wish you could silence them? What’s been the hardest character to write? The most rewarding? What character is most like you?
I think the hardest character to write was Nelia in Behind You right after Jeremiah’s death. I was a new mom, the towers had come down and the world was going crazy. I had to go into the head of a mother who had lost something so dear to her and try to get her to be someone who had healed from this loss by the end of the book. I had no idea where to begin. Another character that was hard was Lena’s dad in I Hadn’t Meant To Tell You This — I couldn’t just make him evil — I had to SHOW why he was doing what he was doing and in order to do that, I had to sit with him – figure out who he was as a boy, what had broken him. I could go on. Toswiah/Evie was a challenge. Melanin Sun was my first boy point of view. I am writing a book now with so many people in it all needing to have their stories told that I just had to put it down for a bit and exhale. And that’s when I want to say “Enough!” Instead, I try to get away for a bit and be in the world of my friends and family to gain strength before I head back into their world.
Some of your characters cope with tough realities such as sexual abuse, police brutality, parental loss. Is it ever tough exploring those hard places? Where do you get the strength to go there and write with candor?
I think if I didn’t have a village — here in Brooklyn I have so many close friends, my children have so many ‘aunties’ and ‘cousins’. There is always someone saying “You can do this, Jackie” or “You rock!” or just saying “come over, we’re cooking for y’all tonight.” And that’s the kind of stuff that makes the everyday so much easier. My friends/family/village is irreverent, funny, tough, honest and most of all – – here for me and helps me get through the hard stuff.
I really admire how you boil down complex issues to their essence in moving picture books such as Visiting Day, Coming On Home Soon and The Other Side. What tips can you offer to others hoping to write realistic fiction for young children? What are some tips for those hoping to write realistic fiction for middle-grade or YA audiences?
Write what you know and don’t let fear keep you from telling your characters’ truths.
Your picture book, Show Way, beautifully celebrates the threads and history that connect generations of your family. How did it feel to see that book come to life and be received so warmly?
It’s always surprising to touch someone with your work, but to have people acknowledge it in ways you never imagined is some whole other thing. Show Way is very, very close to me and I feel like in some ways it’s so intimate and personal and in other ways it’s everyone’s story who had to make a way out of no way. It’s a book that pays homage to my people and connects me to people all over the country so I’m pretty grateful for it in the world.
In the frequently asked questions on your website, you answer, “Why do you love writing so much?” by saying: “Because it makes me happy. Even when the words are slow in coming and the story seems all lopsided, writing keeps me happy.” That’s a beautiful statement. How do you push past that rough patch and find story gold?
Such a good question — I think it’s important to remember that writing is a gift and our stories are gifts to ourselves and to the world and sometimes giving isn’t always the easiest thing to do but it comes back. You have to give it away to keep it — I know each time I put a story into the world, a part of it is stronger inside of me — I understand something on a deeper level, I appreciate someone just a little more, I am just that much more grateful for my life and my work. Yes, writing is not easy. But can any writer imagine NOT writing?
Your verse novel, Locomotion, is such a poignant story. How did you decide to tell that story through poems? What role does poetry play in your life?
I was scared of poetry as a kid. I loved Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni but those were pretty much the only poets I understood. I always felt like it was someone trying to confuse me somehow. Locomotion helped me move past my fear of poetry. I knew I wanted to write about a boy who was learning to tell the story of his life through poetry and at first, I tried to write it as chapters but realized that wasn’t okay because I was telling instead of showing and so I had to go back and read lots of poetry and really begin to believe that there was a poet inside of me in order to write about the poet that was Lonnie.
Peace, Locomotion, just debuted. Congratulations! It’s already winning great reviews. Why did you decide to write a sequel to Locomotion?
When Locomotion was done, I thought that I was finished with Lonnie and Lili’s story. But they stayed with me. I hadn’t found true peace with them living apart and so Lonnie wasn’t at peace (in my head). Then the war was/is so much with us and I thought about all the brothers over there fighting and knew Lonnie had a foster brother in the war so wanted to explore that. Thus began this story.
Please tell us about the process of seeing your YA novel, Miracle’s Boys, turned into a mini-series. What was it like to see your words brought to the TV screen? Are there other of your books you’d love to see made into films?
I haven’t figured this one out yet. I’m glad it was made into a miniseries. I got to meet great people and had a lot of fun. Some of us stayed close and that’s really cool. It’s always nice to see this other kind of attention paid to your work but I don’t dwell on it for too long. I spent a lot of time on the set of Miracle’s Boys when I should have been writing and I don’t want to do that again. If something else gets made, I’ll probably enjoy it from afar.
You’ve won so many awards including Coretta Scott King Awards and Newbery Honor medals for Feathers and Show Way. What did receiving the 2006 Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults mean to you? What have been the proudest and toughest moments of your career? How has your voice grown and developed over the years?
The MAE is still taking some getting used to. A part of me still can’t believe I got a Lifetime Achievement Award. A part of me thinks, “Goodness, should I stop while I’m ahead?” I don’t know. The recognition can sometimes be scary — with it can come an expectation. I try to say, “Those awards were for that book and that’s great but today is another day, Jackie and you still have work to do.” Audre Lorde said, “We must wake up knowing we have work to do and go to bed knowing we’ve done it.” I believe that everyday. There is so much work left to be done in the world and for me, I am hoping to make the change I can and do the work I need to do through this gift I’ve been given. The awards are gifts back to me and to me, they say, “Keep on doing what you’re doing. Thank you.”
I think I’ve become a better writer over the years because I’ve grown up and with growing has come a certain understanding that life is SO not easy! Jeez — some days I’m shocked by how un-easy it is. But then I look up and the sky is amazing or I look across the table and my son is smiling with his five little teeth or my daughter is cracking up over some joke someone has told her or Obama’s given his Inaugural Speech and I think “I wouldn’t want things any other way.”
What was the racial landscape of the children’s book industry like when you entered the field? How has it changed? What gains in the field have made you proud? What do you hope the future brings?
I remember Virginia Hamilton, Walter Dean Myers, Ashley Bryan, Pat Cummings, Joyce Carol Thomas and Eloise Greenfield. I know there were some others who I’m forgetting but these were some of my heroes and the landscape was changing and these writers had made it possible for me to get Maizon in the world. I think what’s cool now is publishers are open to ALL kinds of stories and many ways of telling them — I think they’ve realized that we as people of color has lots of stories and there are many readers out there eager to read these stories. I want my daughter and son and the daughters and sons of people of color to see themselves in the pages of the stories they read — and see writers of color writing these stories. I had very little of this as a child. Around the country I still hear, “Well, I have no African American kids in my class so I don’t have any books by African Americans in my class library.” I always respond by saying “I SO hope I’m not the first African American any of your students meet!” I hope this changes.
What’s your mission? What do you hope young people take away from your stories?
Mainly my mission is to do the work I was put here to do — which is write and be a good person in the world.
Can you please give us a preview of your next book? When will it debut?
I’ve finished a couple of picture books and am deep in a middle grade (I think) book I don’t know what to make of yet. This is from my book, Each Kindness, a picture book that Shadra Strickland (hopefully) will be illustrating:
“That morning, as we settled into our seats, the classroom door opened
and the principal came in.
He had a girl with him and said to us
This is Maya.
Maya looked down at the floor. I think I heard her whisper
We all stared at her.
Her coat was open and the clothes exposed looked old and ragged.
Her shoes were spring shoes, not meant for the snow.
A strap on one of them had broken.”
What’s your greatest joy?
That’s hard to answer — I have so many of them that I don’t know where to begin and I fear I don’t want to jinx any of them by naming them this way. I think at this point (our four-month-old puppy was killed by a car last week as a dogsitter walked her) I am thinking about what gives me joy each day and trying to be in the moment of that. I think like my work, I have to wake up thinking about the MANY gifts I’ve been given and not go to sleep each night until I’ve given thanks for each one of them.
The Buzz on Peace, Locomotion:
“…the spare, beautiful prose – both the dialogue and the fast first-person narrative – is as lyrical as the first book.”
“Moving, thought-provoking, and brilliantly executed, this is the rare sequel that lives up to the promise of its predecessor.”
— School Library Journal, Starred Review
“Woodson successfully develops characters that readers will feel close to…the resonance of the characters’ situations with those of many young readers and Woodson’s undeniable literary talent… distinguish this… “
The Buzz on Feathers:
“Looking forward” is the message that runs through Woodson’s (The House You Pass on the Way) novel. Narrator Frannie is fascinated with Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers/ that perches in the soul,” and grapples with its meaning, especially after a white student joins Frannie’s all-black sixth-grade classroom. Trevor, the classroom bully, promptly nicknames him “Jesus Boy,” because he is “pale and his hair [is] long.” Frannie’s best friend, Samantha, a preacher’s daughter, starts to believe that the new boy truly could be Jesus (“If there was a world for Jesus to need to walk back into, wouldn’t this one be it?”). The Jesus Boy’s sense of calm and its effect on her classmates make Frannie wonder if there is some truth to Samantha’a musings, but a climactic faceoff between him and Trevor bring the newcomer’s human flaws to light. Frannie’s keen perceptions allow readers to observe a ripple of changes. Because she has experienced so much sadness in her life (her brother’s deafness, her mother’s miscarriages) the heroine is able to see beyond it all—to look forward to a time when the pain subsides and life continues. Set in 1971, Woodson’s novel skillfully weaves in the music and events surrounding the rising opposition to the Vietnam War, giving this gentle, timeless story depth. She raises important questions about God, racial segregation and issues surrounding the hearing-impaired with a light and thoughtful touch.”
— Publisher’s Weekly, Starred Review
“Stepped through that door white and softly as the snow,” notes sixth-grader Frannie, on the arrival of a pale, long-haired boy to her predominantly black middle school on a winter day in 1971. He is dubbed the Jesus Boy by the class rowdy, and the name seems to suit the newcomer’s appearance and calm demeanor. Frannie is confused, not only by declarations that he’s NOT white, but that her friend Samantha, daughter of a conservative Baptist minister, also seems to believe that he is Jesus. In light of this and other surprises in her life, Frannie questions her own faith and, most of all, the meaning of the Emily Dickinson poem that she is studying in class, “Hope is a thing with feathers/that perches in the soul/….” How does she maintain hope when her newly pregnant mother has lost three babies already? She also worries about her deaf older brother, Sean, who longs to be accepted in the hearing world. She sees the anger in the bully intensify as he targets Jesus Boy. With her usual talent for creating characters who confront, reflect, and grow into their own persons, Woodson creates in Frannie a strong protagonist who thinks for herself and recognizes the value and meaning of family. The story ends with hope and thoughtfulness while speaking to those adolescents who struggle with race, faith, and prejudice. They will appreciate its wisdom and positive connections.”
— School Library Journal, Starred Review
A Few of Jacqueline Woodson’s Awards:
2008, Newbery Honor Medal for Feathers
2006, Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement (for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature)
2006, Newbery Honor Medal for Show Way
2003, National Book Award Finalist for Locomotion
2001, Coretta Scott King Author Award, Miracle’s Boys
2000, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Miracle’s Boys
For more about Jacqueline Woodson, please visit: www.jacquelinewoodson.com.