Jaqueline Woodson is the author of Brown Girl Dreaming, which won both the 2014 National Book Award and an NAACP Image Award. She is also a two-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award, a four-time winner of the Newberry Honor Award and the recipient of the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards Award. In 2015 she was named the Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. Over her career, Woodson has written more than 30 books and established herself as one of the leading voices in young-adult literature. This August, Woodson will release her first book for adults in over a decade: Another Brooklyn.
We spoke to Woodson, fittingly, in Brooklyn, N.Y., which has been her home since she was a child—and which figures prominently in several of her books. Woodson’s family, like many African-American families, moved from the South to the New York City borough in 1968 in hopes of greater opportunity. Stories of the Great Migration also reoccur throughout Woodson’s work, most notably in her picture book, Coming on Home Soon, the story of a young black girl who lives with her grandmother in the South while her mother seeks work up North.
Woodson graciously took a break from spending time with friends and family at Coney Island—“one of her favorite Brooklyn places,” she says, “because you can see people across lines of race and class and all kinds of cultures coming together”—to speak with The Root about her life, her new book and writing career.
The Root: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Jacqueline Woodson: I have known I wanted to be a writer since I was 7. I loved telling stories. I loved the physical act of writing. I loved being able to sit down and create something either out of my own experiences or something that was completely made up. The first thing I wrote was a collection of poems about butterflies. I wrote them on little pieces of paper and stapled them together. And then my grandmother washed my pants and they were gone.
I knew I would write no matter what—whether someone published me or didn’t publish me. I knew I wanted to write about people who had historically been absent in the pages of the literature I was reading. It’s still surprising to me that I can have a life of writing full time—that I have written over 30 books. That people want to talk to me about writing. I love it. And I am so grateful that the life I have always wanted—in terms of being able to tell stories and have people connect to them—is the life I am able to have.
TR: How did you get interested in writing children’s literature?
JW: It’s where I found my voice. Even with Another Brooklyn, classified as an adult book, the main character is looking back on the years when she was young. But I think the labels are kind of incidental. My first publisher published me as a writer of young-adult fiction, and from there it went on. But I’ve always written for all ages. And as you can see, with a book like Brown Girl Dreaming, it’s a book that can be read by 11-year-olds. But then I get tons of fan mail from people in their 40s and 50s who experience the book and connect to it and love it.
TR: Why a return now to writing adult fiction with Another Brooklyn?
JW: I knew it was different from the YA genre in that it played with time differently. In YA, you’re in a year of a life or a school year of a life or a weekend of a life. So the way that August moved through time spoke to me as something different from the YA genre. I wanted to step back and see what I could do differently. I had a sense that everyone was waiting for the next great middle-grade/young-adult book, and I was like, “You know what? I will do that one next time.”
TR: You draw upon the quintessential African-American experience in a lot of your books, themes of the Great Migration, sharecropping and finding work during Jim Crow. Why?
JW: My family came here as part of the Great Migration in the ’60s. My mom moved here with the four of us. I was a child, so I had to come with her. There were all these tales of Rosie the Riveter, but none of them talking about black women. So when I wrote Coming on Home Soon, I wanted to write about what black women were doing during that time.
TR: There has been a lot of necessary conversation about the lack of diversity in children’s lit—the “we need diverse books” effort. Has a lack of openness toward diversity affected you—especially earlier in your career?
JW: I am so happy the conversation is starting. It’s been starting for so many years, but it’s in very embryonic stages. I have had librarians tell me they don’t stock my books because they don’t have any children of color in their schools. Which just shocks me, because if they’re in such a homogeneous setting, how are they going to learn about anyone who is different?
TR: What do you think of the role of black artists during this nadir of violence against black bodies and the fight for Black Lives Matter?
JW: Now that I’m older, whenever someone is not understanding that black lives matter, I have no patience for explaining it to them. If you can’t bear witness to this, if you’re living in such a bubble that you can’t understand this, I can’t speak the language that remedially to get you to understand something so fundamental.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.