Your Roving Reporter checks in to report on a bookish event near you! Last Friday, May 8th, Jacqueline Woodson spoke at UBC’s Robson Square campus in what was her first ever trip to Vancouver.
She began by admitting that she was a bit tuckered out by the whirlwind pace of visits to Vancouver schools – “I love the children. They’re fabulous. I’m so happy to say goodbye to them at the end of the day” – but as she spoke her own energy and that of the crowd picked up immediately. She had a strong sense of humour about herself:
New Yorkers “are tangential by nature. You have to trust that I’ll come back to the point. And I do, once I remember what the point is.”
and an infectious passion for good storytelling.
A few facts about the author: she knew she wanted to be a writer since she was 7 years old. To date, she has 31 books published. Her children are 13 (daughter) and 7 (son) years old. As an imaginative child, she frequently found herself in trouble for telling lies, until the day that her teacher told her, “write it down, because if you write it down it isn’t a lie anymore.”
Losing a family member is difficult to get used to. After her mother died, Jacqueline Woodson found she kept thinking she would call her mother – “no.” She realized how many things she had never asked her mother, how many opportunities were forever gone. “Each Kindness” was written out of that experience and the experience most children have of being bullied and a bully in turn. The picturebook explores “kindness and lost chances and the assumption that tomorrow is going to come.”
At first, “Each Kindness” told a story from Jacqueline Woodson’s childhood. “As I rewrote and rewrote I decided to take myself out” and tell the story not about little Jacqueline but about someone else entirely. She felt also a strong sense of writer’s responsibility. In “Each Kindness,” the protagonist-narrator and her friends reject a new, poor girl named Maya.
“I didn’t want to just make [Maya] this victim.”
Part of an author’s responsibility is “making sure that the person who sees themselves in the book” – the book as a mirror – “is empowered by it not crushed by it.”
She rewrote the story to give Maya more power – when the other girls refuse to play jacks with Maya, Maya plays alone and declares herself the champion; although Maya knows the other girls will not skip rope with her, she folds the rope in half and skips all around the school by herself, unstoppable, and our narrator watches Maya in unwilling admiration.
Books are not only mirrors, they are also windows to other peoples, situations, and cultures.
“Children also need windows so they can see other worlds.”
“One thing that windows allow is for people to be less afraid of Other.”
Writing books is “more than telling stories.” The author has a responsibility to the children who will read the book, and to the writers who will come after.
She spoke briefly about her struggle in If You Come Softly, a Romeo and Juliet tale between a black boy and a Jewish girl, both from wealthy families. She knew somebody was going to die, and she had to decide who. It was a difficult choice: who could she bear to kill, and whose death would be powerful and painful enough to fit the story? More and more rewrites as the characters she was happy to kill off were not what the story needed.
“I had to decide who [was] gonna die.”
“Who would die and it would be realistic?”
“I knew if it was going to be realistic, the person who was gonna die was the black boy.”
Black boys have been killed by police for decades, she added; that is nothing new; what is new is the social media that lets the world know when yet another unarmed boy or man is killed by white officers.
The sequel to If You Come Softly is Behind You, written immediately after 9/11. Jacqueline Woodson was 6 months pregnant with her daughter and went to the countryside for a little while.
“I started writing Behind You to figure out, what happens when someone you know is dead?
The story is told in vignettes from the perspectives of the characters from If You Come Softly, including Miah, the boy who was killed. When she read from the first two chapters – narrated by Miah and Ellie, the Romeo and Juliet – I was not, I am sure, the only person in the audience whose cheeks were not entirely dry when she finished.
Jacqueline Woodson kept us from dissolving with an anecdote from her school trips. Children always ask, she told us, “is it all autobiographical?” “Well, I haven’t been dead yet.”
“But it’s all emotionally autobiographical.”
Beneath a Meth Moon is set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The media, Jacqueline Woodson noticed, focused on New Orleans – and the destruction there was terrible – but there were whole white communities that were wiped out, too. So she wrote about a white teen who copes with her mother’s death by using meth, because she had two large questions: What happens when the cameras move on? Why would anybody in their right mind use meth?
Writing Brown Girl Dreaming involved research into her family’s history (fortunately, one of her aunts is a genealogist) and into “who my mother was before she was my mother,” as well as into African-American history as a whole.
“It was also so deeply humbling to know that we had been here before…”
“the deep and amazing resilience of my people.”
She quoted Audre Lorde: “We must wake up knowing we have work to do and go to bed knowing we have done that work.”
During the Q&A Jacqueline Woodson elaborated on her writing process.
“I think the hardest part of writing is finishing the book.”
She usually knows by the time she has written three sentences of a story what age of readers it is for by “how young the person telling the story sounds” and by how immediate the story feels. Children, she said, don’t usually have much sense of time beyond the present. If a story feels very immediate, it is a picturebook. Stories for older readers can leave more inferred, as the reader “can piece together things that are not explicit.” Middle grade books are similarly in the moment but can leave some things unexplained; YA novels have more of a perspective of the future.
On writing a story: “First is the stage where it’s the best book in the world and the best book you’ve ever written. And then one day you wake up and it is the worst book you’ve ever written.” This is what Jacqueline Woodson calls “the place where the book falls apart.” This is where the hard work sets in. She has to look at the story’s scaffolding: where is the story going? what is it trying to say? why? how is it going to get where it is going?
Every single book goes through this stage.
Advice: “Young writer, never say nodding your head, because you can’t nod anything else, and never say shrugging your shoulders” for the same reason.
Q: How do you avoid tropes and stereotypes?
A: “I have a deep deep respect for humans. I start at the heart, and I have a very mixed family… I know the world I’m talking about, and if I don’t, I make sure someone does.”
She seeks feedback from thoughtful friends, and edits out any stereotypes or unbalanced portrayals that unwittingly emerged.
“All people have a right to be here and all people have a story and all people have a right to tell their story.”
“If you haven’t sat down to have dinner with a person of the race you’re writing about, then don’t. Or the class you’re writing about, or the gender.”
Concluding words on readers and children:
“I think young people are inherently empathetic. They want to reach out to Maya and protect her…”
“What [a book does to young people] is make them reach inside themselves.”
“Kids get really mad when there’s no hope.”