In this exclusive extended interview with National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jacqueline Woodson, the Newberry Honored author talks character building, diversity movements, and the real-world importance of books for kids and teens.
By Jera Brown
Jacqueline Woodson writes about issues that make her feel powerless.
Most recently, that means police brutality as well as mass deportation and its impact on American families. The author of more than 30 books for children, middle-grade and adult readers, Woodson writes to better understand difficult subjects, but also with the high-minded goal of provoking tangible change—something she has believed literature capable of since she herself was a young reader.
To Woodson, the power of literature comes from creating what Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop—pioneering Ohio State University emeritus professor of children’s literature—refers to as “mirrors” and “windows.” Says Woodson: Readers “need mirrors to see reflections of themselves in literature, which is reaffirming, but they also need a window to see how the ‘other’ lives.”
Woodson has used her own background as a black queer woman and her ability to write rich, diverse characters to expand the “mirrors and windows” available for children and adults, with an extensive body of work comprising poetry, memoir, fiction, picture books and cultural criticism.
Among her many accolades, 2014’s Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir in verse (using poetic forms instead of traditional paragraphs), was named a Newberry Honor Book and earned Woodson her second Coretta Scott King Award, along with a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. She’s the author of three additional Newberry Honor Books: After Tupac and D Foster, Feathers and Show Way. The memoir Another Brooklyn, released in 2016, scored Woodson her fourth National Book Award nomination.
In 2018, Woodson began a two-year term for the Library of Congress as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature—an honor previously held by such accomplished authors as Katherine Paterson, Kate DiCamillo and, most recently, Gene Luen Yang. Established in 2008, the role is designed to raise awareness about the impact of literature on lifelong literacy, starting with the development of young readers.
This August, Woodson is releasing two more books: Harbor Me is a middle-grade novel about a group of fifth- and sixth-graders whose families struggle with poverty, deportation and incarceration. The Day You Begin is a picture book illustrated by Mexican artist Rafael López that narrates the first-person account of Woodson’s great-grandfather—the only black boy in his classroom.
Woodson took a brief respite from her busy schedule to talk with WD about her body of work and the importance of books for kids and teens. Find a curated version of this interview in the September 2018 Writer’s Digest, or read the uncut version below.
You’ve said when you feel powerless toward something, you write about it. What exactly do you mean by that?
My writing is always [prompted by] this whole series of questions that I’m asking myself: Why does this happen? Why does that person behave that way? What is the impact of that behavior? How is that person going to change? What’s going to be the catalyst to their change?
This new book, Harbor Me, is about kids dealing with a number of things, including police brutality and someone’s father getting deported. And for me, the question is: What happens when this happens? How do we keep moving forward and what are the tools we have? [In] figuring that out in the narrative, I’m also figuring it out in my real life, and that’s what makes it healing and bearable.
Why were The Day You Begin and Harbor Me—your two latest books—important for you to write right now?
Because I’m having a hard time in this country. I know young people must be having a hard time in this country. … This is a gift I have—I’m able to tell stories. I’m able to get people to think and feel and do through story, and so when it’s time to figure out how to resist what’s not working, you need to go to the tools you have.
Harbor Me has many protagonists. How do you effectively portray such a diverse set of characters?
Oh my goodness, they surprise me sometimes. The main part of the process was [just] writing. There were holes in their lives, and there were holes in their characters, and the rewriting and the filling in—I think of it the way artists might think of their art process. You’re adding layers and layers and layers until your character makes sense, and then you’re adding more layers until your character has their metamorphosis. So with each of these characters, it’s that same question that is part of the hero’s journey, which is: What is their original world? What is it saying?
The first character we meet is Esteban. His ordinary world was the world with his mother, father and sister—and then one day his father doesn’t come home. Then he’s no longer in that ordinary world because his father has been taken by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. What’s going to happen to him? Who are going to be his allies? I just start kind of flushing it out with those questions and see where they take me.
As a YA writer, you often write about “controversial” topics, such as addiction and interracial relationships. Early in your career, you learned from none other than Judy Blume that your books were being banned or challenged by parents in some school systems as a consequence. Is that still the case? How did that make you feel?
I’m sure my books are being challenged all over the place, but it’s not like I would know that, right? It’s not like someone’s calling me up and saying, “Yo, we challenged your book in Waco, Texas.” I know that it’s a place I never get invited to do a school visit. I’ve never been invited to Brigham Young University, which has this huge children’s literature component. I’m sure that’s about race or sexuality or gender—who knows? You don’t know how and when you’re being challenged until someone like Judy Blume says, “Oh yeah, you’re being challenged.”
I get asked a lot about my literature in terms of the controversy of it, which, it’s not controversial to me. I’m writing about everyday life and real issues and real people—I mean real characters who are trying to find their footing. And I think the thing that is called “controversial” is the thing that makes other people uncomfortable. I’m not uncomfortable writing about this stuff. I write because I think it’s so necessary. I would be uncomfortable not writing about it.
Do you think writers with marginalized identities or marginalized stories need a unique sense of bravery and boldness in order to make it [in publishing]?
I think every writer needs some bravery and some boldness, and a little bit of a unicorn in them to make it. Eighty percent of writing is about persevering, and when your book bombs, not saying, “I quit,” but saying, “OK, that book bombed, but I have plenty of other stories locked and loaded for my career.” You can’t go into this fearfully and you can’t go into this with a chip on your shoulder saying, “I have a right to have my book make TheNew York Times bestseller list in its first week of publishing.” It’s not going to happen for 99 percent of writers. You have to go in with integrity, and with faith, and you have to go into this willing to work really hard to get your book out there.
And it’s a balance! I mean, I look on Twitter and I see people [where] every single post is about their new book. I’m like, Stop it already; you’re going to drown your book! Because writing isn’t just about writing, it’s about the social context in which you’re writing. It’s about paying attention to the world, and if you publish a book and it’s just about your book, you’re already failing the rest of the world.
What advice do you have for YA writers tackling topics that might make others uncomfortable?
I think the most dangerous thing a writer can do is think about how a reader is going to react to their writing, because you never know. You don’t know the reader, and if you’re going to self-censor, if you’re so busy thinking about the audience, who are you writing for? The first person you should be writing for is yourself. If you start out thinking, “What does the reader need?” you’re going to fail. You’re going to be wrong.
That’s often the advice I hear for adult writers, but assumed it’d be different for those writing for kids.
Well, the thing about writing for young people is … you have to know your audience. And I think that’s something that might be a little bit different.
If you don’t know that when you’re writing a middle-grade novel, your protagonists can’t be 17 going on 40, then you don’t know this genre. You have to know if you’re writing about kids in fifth grade, your protagonist needs to be 10 or 11. But does that mean knowing your reader specifically? Not so much.
In 2016, you published your first book for an adult audience in over a decade, then followed it with two young adult books. How do you switch mindsets when writing for different audiences?
It was difficult to go from writing for adults back to writing for kids. [But] going from writing for young people back to writing for adults was not difficult. After Another Brooklyn, getting to Harbor Me and The Day You Begin—that was a struggle, and I think it’s because of the different voices I’m working with. I’m going back to adult now, so I’m going to see how that transition goes.
Do you read differently when you’re writing middle-grade versus YA or adult novels?
Yes and no. When I’m writing for adults and picture books, I read a lot more poetry. When I’m writing for young adults, that’s when I catch up on all my friends’ books, and then when I’m writing for middle-grades, I’m usually not reading at all. I want to get into [my own] world, and when reading other people’s middle-grade books, it’s going to take me into their world. Or [if] I’m reading adult stuff, it’s going to make my [middle-grade] characters sound too old.
Do you have any advice for writers interested in publishing both YA and adult books?
I think people should just write what they want to write. A lot of times [we] think that we have [to have] the golden elixir that’s going to be the answer. The only answer I can give is to write the dang book. Write two books at once if that’s what’s coming to you; write four books. But this is a process, and I’m sure writers have heard this a lot of times, and I think sometimes it’s hard to hear, but it is a process. And I’ve seen so many people who want to know about publishing before they even put pen to paper.
I used to send out short stories and poetry back in the ’90s, and we had to send it out by regular mail. But the minute the rejection came back, I always had the next envelope waiting. Paris Review rejected it? Let me try TheNew Yorker. Because I just wanted to keep it off my desk, and while it was out there, I wasn’t sitting there not writing. I was working on the next thing.
What are your thoughts about building a platform?
Yeah, you can build your following. You can try to get people to tweet about your books. But I haven’t seen that cash out in a way. … I haven’t seen that kind of social interaction translate into these huge sales. What I’ve seen translate into sales is having more than one book, getting awards for the book, and doing school visits and book fairs and stuff like that. But I think that if people are thinking, I’m going to write this one book and it’s going to blow up, and I have to have my platform, and all that—I don’t think they’re thinking realistically about writing as a career. I do think it's important to think, if this is the thing you love doing, what is your career going to look like? What do you want it to look like in 10 years? How many books do you want to have written? How many stories do you have in you? Are you sending out stuff to anthologies?
And also, what are you doing for humankind? It’s not just about publishing a book, it’s about our work in the world. And I think for me, my career has gotten to this point because I deeply believe in trying to change the world. I’ve never navel-gazed. How can I get out there and do this kind of work that's going to change the narrative of the moment that we’re living in? Early on in the 90s, I was mad that, as a black girl, there were very few books in my childhood that were mirrors for me. And I’m like, I'm going to write to fill that hole so that no other black girl is going to have to live in a world where she's not represented on the page. It was about me, and it was not about me.
In this moment, all these kids are suffering and not knowing what tomorrow is going to look like, and I’m like, What am I going to do to help them move through this moment? On Twitter, it’s very rare that I say, Here’s my book. It’s like, OK, what are the things that need to be talked about today? Or, Who is going to need a little lift today? I think that’s the bigger question: In the scheme of things, where does your book live?
Do you think movements like We Need Diverse Books and Own Voices have made it easier for writers with marginalized identities to find representation?
I do. I think what they’ve done is opened the eyes of publishers to know that there are gaps in the body of work that are being put out there, and something needs to be done by making a lot of noise.
Publishing is a business, and publishers want to make money. I don’t know if you saw the Vanity Fair piece I did on Lena Waithe, but we were just talking about this in terms of Black Panther. Suddenly there’s going to be all these Black Panther-type movies because all of a sudden studios have figured out, “Wait a second, if we make it, they’ll buy it.” And I think with publishers, it’s the same thing—it’s what sells.
I remember in the 90s, when Terry McMillan self-published Mama, people were so thirsty for that book. They were like, “Oh, hell yeah.” And then a publisher bought it, and McMillan was the go-to woman. She was fabulous. She is fabulous. I love Terry McMillan. But I remember sitting on a panel and hearing a white guy [in the industry] say, “Black people don’t buy books. So that’s why we’re not publishing them.” And it was that moment that I was like, This is the world that I’m coming into as a young writer. Like McMillan was showing, if they make it, we will come. It really changed the publishing game and doors opened, and a lot of us came through. But it’s the same thing—it kind of lulled for a minute. People weren’t getting their books published and, more than that, people weren’t getting into publishing. So many of the rooms I’ve walked into have been all white. And many of the mistakes that have been made when books were published, [and] then had to be pulled because they said something stupid and racist, is because there was not a person in the room to say, “You know what, that’s stupid and racist. Don’t publish that book.”
So I think We Need Diverse Books has done the work of saying, “We need more people of color, we need more queers, we need more trans people,” not only telling their own stories rather than having someone tell them for them, but also deciding how those stories are going to be published, deciding how those stories are going to be packaged, deciding how those stories are going to be publicized.
I know queer-identified writers who have heard the same thing from publishers—that there’s “not a market” for queer stories.
There is a market. Here’s the thing: The story has to be really, really good. You know, if you’re a straight white boy, you could write a story and it’ll get all kinds of hype. But, sadly if you're queer or of color or any of that, your book has to be off-the-hook good or else you’re not going to get published.
As National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, one of your goals is to spend time with kids in underserved communities. What communities are you focusing on?
I’m hoping to visit a lot of young people in juvenile detention centers and underserved schools. Next week I’m going to Alabama, and I’ve done some Skyping with women in prison. … I’ve been to one school that was primarily autistic kids. I was just in Philadelphia and went to a number of Title I schools and community centers, including one that was [for] adults and children. I’ve been home like three days, so I feel like I should be able to list more places. It’s been such a blur: a lot of young people. I mean, it’s been fabulous, and it’s [also] been some work.
What do those interactions look like, and what have you learned from these visits?
I just love [the kids] so much! They’re still very passionate about reading. Part of my [National Ambassador] platform is [the idea that] Reading = Hope × Change. The gist of it was to get people in rooms together to talk. And I’ve re-learned how interested young people are in engaging and being heard. That gets reconfirmed every time I step into a room with them. A lot of times people think young people are just so into their devices and kind of checked out. One place I went to had a large population of Muslim kids, and so a lot of girls wore hijabs. Just listening to them talk about their spiritual lives and their academic lives was amazing, and [they asked] me about my own spiritual life as a writer and what that means.
What role do you believe literature should play in the lives of young readers?
I think the role that it plays in the lives of young readers, and the role that it can play in the lives of all readers, is to create conversation: to be able to engage across lines of socioeconomics, race, gender and sexuality, and to be the jumping-off point for that conversation. A lot of times people are scared to have very hard conversations, or what they perceive to be very hard conversations, and what literature can do is introduce those conversations through characters and make it a safer entry into talking about stuff. When people feel passionate about good books, they want to share them. They want to engage in discussions around them. It also changes people. It stops the routines.
You have two kids. How has your writing changed since becoming a parent? For instance, do you find yourself writing with them in mind, or do you see characters differently?
My kids make me laugh, so I think my writing has gotten funnier at points. I took myself very seriously B.C. (Before Children), and now I definitely feel like having a 16-year-old daughter … a lot of Another Brooklyn was inspired by me watching her negotiate the world. I remember my own self at 16, but my kids definitely gave me feedback whether I asked for it or not. And they make me laugh in a way that shows me that young people are finding their way and laughter comes to them. It’s not all just brooding.
Is there any parting wisdom you’d like to give aspiring writers?
I know every writer says this, but you can’t be a writer if you don’t read. It’s really important to read the same book again and again and study how other writers do stuff. And of course, read in your genre. You don’t know how many people who aspire to write for young people have come to me and said, “Well, I can’t be bothered with reading those books.”
Editor's Note: An error in this article has been corrected. It originally stated that Jacqueline Woodson authored the book The Evolution of Culpernia Tate, which was penned by Jacqueline Kelly.
Jera Brown is a freelance writer and columnist for Rebellious Magazine. Selections from her memoir have been published in The Rumpus and Big Muddy.