Jacqueline Woodson

2014 National Book Award Recipient
Headshot of a woman.

Photo by Juna F. Nagle

Jacqueline Woodson:  Writing had been my dream since I was seven-years-old, and it was just the thing that made me happiest. And if I was alone with a composition notebook, and a freshly sharpened pencil, my day was made!

Josephine Reed:  That’s 2014 National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

It’s a bit misleading to just cite Jacqueline Woodson’s National Book Award for Brown Girl Dreaming which also received the Coretta Scott King Award, a Newbery Honor Award, the NAACP Image Award, and the Sibert Honor Award. These are only a few of many honors Woodson has received throughout the years as the author of more than two dozen books for young adults, middle graders, and children. Her reputation as an inventive and inclusive author for young minds and young hearts is absolute and unique.

Yet, her latest book, Another Brooklyn is a novel for adults— it’s a beautifully-written exploration of friendship, change, crazy young hope, and disappointment. A 2016 National Book Award finalist, Another Brooklyn is the story of four girls coming of age. August is the narrator—she’s lived in Tennessee until she was eight when her family moved to Bushwick. There she finds Angela, Gigi and Sylvia and the four girls become each other’s life lines as they learn to navigate the Brooklyn streets, certain that the future belongs to them.  But as much as the story is about the friendship of these four girls as they grow up—Bushwick itself is a character given almost equal weight. In fact, Jacqueline Woodson’s dedication reads: For Bushwick, 1970-1990. In Memory.

Jacqueline Woodson:  Another Brooklyn is basically a biography of Bushwick and a narrative about what it means to come of age in this country as a girl. I’m thinking about that Bushwick before it changed into the Bushwick that it is now. I grew up there and it was a neighborhood that was on the bridge of change. There were black folks coming in through the great migration, there were Latino people coming in through immigration, and white flight was going on – white folks were moving out of that neighborhood and moving to places like Queens and upstate New York and Long Island, so they were trying to get away from the people of color. And people who were coming there were coming there with their own dreams of making it in this country, and, you know, I say another Brooklyn and it’s paying homage to James Baldwin’s Another Country, and also to the fact that people were looking for this way out, not necessarily a way out of Bushwick, but a way into a different economic class and Bushwick was kind of the launching for that.

Jo Reed:  Tell me why you chose to write Another Brooklyn as an adult novel? What did that allow you to do?

Jacqueline Woodson:  Put a lot more sex in it.

<Both Laugh>

Jacqueline Woodson:  It’s funny ‘cause I have a lot of friends who write young adult novels, and there’s a lot of sex in young adult novels…

Jo Reed:  Yeah, there sure is.

Jacqueline Woodson:  I have a hard time doing it, and I think what it allowed me to do is look at the book from the perspective of an adult, which you don’t do when you’re writing for young people, you write from the perspective of the young person and they stay that age so they don’t have a future sense of the world, they don’t have an adult sense of the world. And with Another Brooklyn, I was able to play around with time and age, so August is in her 30’s when the book opens and I’m able to go back to her in her teens and even earlier, but looking at it from an adult perspective.

Jo Reed:  You really zero in on the intensity of friendship for young girls. I think it’s one reason why I like young adult fiction because you actually can see stories of friendship. Not so often in adult fiction.

Jacqueline Woodson:  Yeah, it’s interesting, I think one of the points of beginning for me in writing Another Brooklyn was the fact that I knew people who didn’t have tight friends as adults and, especially for women, those friendships are so intense when we’re young – and I know I’m completely engendering – for the women I knew, and that’s not necessarily all women.

Jo Reed:  Well, for the women I knew, certainly in my life…

Jacqueline Woodson:  Yeah, so it was always surprising for me to think about people walking through the world without their girls, and I wanted to begin to explore, how does someone break up with their friends, how does that happen, those intense friendships disintegrate?

Jo Reed:  The book also is looking at these four girls slowly becoming aware of their growing sexuality and exalting in it in some ways, but also protecting each other from it in others.

Jacqueline Woodson:  Yeah, that thing about growing up girl in this country, and I think it’s the case in many countries, is that fact that when you’re growing up, your physical development is so visible to the world. And the world is watching, you know, men are watching, people are watching and so it’s very hard to hide that, so you do need the protection of friends to help you move through the attention that you’re getting that is both wanted and unwanted, and beginning to negotiate what does it meant to be desired. And how to walk through the world knowing that that desire is there and it’s a powerful thing for you and also can be very disempowering.

Jo Reed:  Yeah, I think it’s both powerful and frightening.

Jacqueling Woodson:  Mm hm

Jo Reed:  You know, in some ways, Another Brooklyn reads like a companion book – and I don’t mean to suggest it doesn’t stand alone – but a companion book for Brown Girl Dreaming, in the sense that both books trace a young girl’s journey from the south to Brooklyn and both books are so much about memory.

Jacqueline Woodson:  Brown Girl Dreaming, of course, is South Carolina, and it’s my memoir, and Another Brooklyn is Tennessee and of course I mine my own memory of the South to put that Tennessee on the page, which is geographically very different from Greenville. But, one of the things that happened when I was writing Brown Girl Dreaming, my mom died suddenly, and when she died, she left us the house that we’d grown up in in Bushwick, so I was going back and forth to Bushwick a lot, and witnessing how the neighborhood was quickly changing and taking notes, and I knew I was going to write a book that was a biography of Bushwick just because, again, I wanted to put that on the page I wanted people to know that this place existed and I really wanted people to see that this was a place that was thriving that it wasn’t a neighborhood that suddenly got, quote, unquote, “discovered,” but that people were living here and growing up and growing old in this place.

So the germ, the idea came as I was writing brown girl dreaming, to write a book about Bushwick and also to write about friendship, I mean, in Brown Girl Dreaming, there’s a lot about the friendship with my best friend Maria, who I’m still very close to, but I also wanted to write about what it meant to be a teenager and have friendships, ‘cause Brown Girl Dreaming stops when I’m around 10, and another Brooklyn opens when august is around seven or eight.

Jo Reed:  Will you read from Another Brooklyn?

Jacqueline Woodson:  Okay, I'm just going to read from the very first page.

Jacqueline Woodson:  "For a long time my mother wasn't dead yet. Mine could have been a more tragic story. My father could have given into the bottle or the needle, or a woman, and left my brother and me to care for ourselves. Or worse, in the care of New York City's Children's Services, where my father said there was seldom a happy ending. But this didn't happen. I know now that what is tragic isn't the moment. It is the memory. If we had had jazz would we have survived differently? If we had known that our story was a blues with a refrain running through it, would we have lifted our heads, said to each other, "This is memory," again and again, until the living made sense? Where would we be now if we had known there was a melody to our madness? Because even though Sylvia, Angela, Gigi and I came together like a jazz improv, half-notes tentatively moving toward one another until the ensemble found its footing, and the music felt like it had always been there, we didn't have jazz to know this was who we were. We had the Top 40 music of the 1970s trying to tell our story. It never quite figured us out."

Jo Reed: That’s Jacqueline Woodson reading from her novel, Another Brooklyn.

Can you talk about, also, just a little bit more about memory, and how you use memory in writing these books?

Jacqueline Woodson:  Yeah, I think memory is so important for me. I have way too much of it. <laughs> I get made fun of because I know jingles, and I know jump rope games, and I, you know, know so much from my childhood, and have held onto it. And I think it's important, -- I just wrote a piece for The New York Times about the Underground Railroad in New York City. And at the end I referenced Sankofa, which is a Twi word for "looking back to remember, to be able to go forward." And I feel like for me memory is so much a part of understanding my future, because I have all of this stuff from the past that I can go look at and say, "Okay, well, this happened this way, so that means I need to do this kind of work, so that it happens that way next time." And so it is really important. And I think memory is important to my writing, just because it adds a certain essence to it. I think we all can relate, for lack of a better word to that sense of looking back on something, and the melancholy of it. And be able to jump into a narrative that does intrigue us that way.

Jo Reed: Brown Girl Dreaming, as we said is a memoir. It's written in verse. Another Brooklyn is a novel, but it reads like a prose poem. And I think what your books do, but these two most particularly -- they really give the words a lot of space and let them breathe, so that you're almost compelled to inhale very slowly.

Jacqueline Woodson:  Yeah, that's one's hope. <laughter> I always, when someone says, "Oh, I read your book in an hour," I'm like, "Go back and read it again, it took me three years to write." And it's so important with Another Brooklyn because the whitespace does play into the narrative. It's very intentional. That book was rewritten so many times because I wanted to hone it to the bare essence of what I was trying to do, and so that the reader goes in, and they are inside that moment with those girls. But it's a very slow-moving moment. So it's meant to be read slowly. It's meant to be put down when there are gaps in the narrative, that's the place where I'm asking the reader to, "Stop, just live with this a while and rest. Put the book down if you need to, and pick it back up when you've completely digested what just happened, or what I just said." And I think a lot of times, I know with my own daughter, who, to her dismay, was assigned the book this year. <laughs> You know, she opened it up-- I think for her seeing all the whitespace can be exciting, 'cause it's like, "Oh, this is a fast read." But once you get into the narrative, you see that it i-- like poetry, it's meant to be savored in this way. And I was writing it right after I had become Young People's Poet Laureate, I had written a novel in verse. And I really wanted to marry the forms. I wanted to play with narrative, and I wanted to play with poetry and bring something together that was a hybrid, and spoke to many, many readers in many different ways.

Jo Reed:  Yeah, I think you succeeded.

Jacqueline Woodson:  Oh, thank you.

Jo Reed:  You know, I also found the way you write about the North and the South very compelling in both books, particularly Brown Girl Dreaming. You know, in the South, as you describe your childhood there, there was this cocoon of safety and belonging in the midst of this bigger danger of Jim Crow and racism.

Jacqueline Woodson:  Mm hm.

Jo Reed:  And your mother didn't want to raise you in the Jim Crow South, and you're off to Brooklyn, which on one hand is more freedom, but on the other hand is more restricting.

Jacqueline Woodson:  Mm hm.

Jo Reed:  I just found that fascinating. But you really give such a sense of what the South could be like for a child within the confines of their own neighborhood, their own space.

Jacqueline Woodson:  Mm hm, and the same in Another Brooklyn. I mean, Another Brooklyn is different because they're of a different economic class, right? They own their land, and August's memory of it is that, "This is everything! This is the world." There's no mention of Jim Crow, there's no outside world. The outside world, of course, is Vietnam and her uncle going off and what happens with that, but that world of Tennessee is the only world. But it's a world that she sees as falling apart, right? The stove doesn't work, the refrigerator doesn't work. The couch is falling apart, and she sees these small moments in which that ordinary world of hers is crumbling.

Jo Reed:  In Brown Girl Dreaming, you know, the way-- again, that word picture that you paint of your grandmother's house, and the big yellow kitchen, I just feel like I'm there! And I can smell what she's cooking on the stove!

Jacqueline Woodson:  Yeah, there was always something cooking. I love that kitchen. It's so interesting, I went back to Greenville about a year ago, and drove by the house, and it looks so small. I wasn't able to go in, but I was such a small child in it, and in a big world, but it was again just like August in Tennessee, it was everything.

Jo Reed:  You know, you write about coming to New York in both books. And in both it is a place that, at first, cold, gray, lonely. Is that the way you remembered it from your own life?

Jacqueline Woodson:  I don't, because in Brown Girl Dreaming it was so much more about the missing of the South. And comparing that to Brooklyn, yeah, it was cement, and the South was so green for me. And at the same time, there was so much family in the North when I came as a young person. You know, my aunt was here, her boyfriend was here, we had other people, who had migrated already, and that's, of course, you know, how the Great Migration happened. People went where they knew people. And so there was the unfamiliarity of the place’s geography, but there was a warmth to it. But as a child I would have rather have stayed in the South, because that's what I knew and loved. And as I grew up in New York, I know I can't imagine anything else.

Jo Reed:  Yeah. Religion is also important in both books. The Nation of Islam was particularly in Another Brooklyn and both Jehovah's Witnesses, and Nation of Islam, as well, in Brown Girl Dreaming. And they both really give a stability to those two young girls in the book.

Jacqueline Woodson:  Mm hm, yeah, in Brown Girl Dreaming, because as you know, I grew up Jehovah's Witness, and when my uncle came back home from prison he had converted to the Nation of Islam, so that was very much in our house, as well. And when I wrote Another Brooklyn, I really wanted to investigate the Nation of Islam in a different way. I felt like it was another story that I had not seen on the page. And that I had kind of cheated myself out of in the writing of Brown Girl Dreaming. I mean, and Brown Girl Dreaming, again, it's a memoir, so it's what I understood. And with writing Another Brooklyn, it was about going and doing more research on the Nation of Islam. And it's true that in both books religion is one of the grounding forces for me in Brown Girl Dreaming, and for August in Another Brooklyn. And in Another Brooklyn she, of course, resisted at some point. She, you know, she doesn't wear the Hijab, she's eating pork with her friends and all of that. For me, as a person, I still don't eat pork. I mean, it's one of those things from my younger religion that I can't backslide on. It's just too indoctrinated. <laughter>

Jo Reed:  You were a slow reader when you were a kid. Can you explain your process of reading when you were younger?

Jacqueline Woodson:  I'm still such a slow reader. I cringe when someone asks me to read something, and tell them that it's going to take a long time. I have to read things again and again and again until they sink in. And it's this combination of reading and memorizing. So a lot of stuff that I end up reading and writing, I end up memorizing, just because the process is going back over and over until I have a very deep sense of the language. There are people who can read fast, who can skim, who can, you know, read a couple of words, ignore the adjectives and get the meaning of something. I can't do that. And I think it's just my writer's mind, I mean, I didn't know it as a kid. But it was really a way of studying the text that I had to have this really deep comprehension of it before I could move on. And as a result, I think it was puzzling to my teachers, because when it came to reading comprehension, I excelled! You know, and still they were constantly trying to push me to read more difficult texts, but I didn't-- and I resisted that, because I liked reading where I was reading. And until I truly understood what I was reading, I was not willing to move on. And it was a problem in school! Now it's not, because I'm a grown-up and I can read what I want. <laughs> But I think it's heartbreaking, because you learn to write by reading. And we're asking young people to write now, and we're not letting them read the way writers read. And I don't think I'm alone reading this way as a writer.

Jo Reed:  Yeah, I think we can call it "deep reading."

Jacqueline Woodson:  Mm hm, engaging with the narrative.

Jo Reed:  Who did you read? Who was important to you?

Jacqueline Woodson:  I love John Steptoe, one of my early books was Stevie which I talk about in Brown Girl Dreaming. I read a lot of Langston Hughes' poetry. I read Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni was a huge poet for me! And Nikki Giovanni, I actually listened to. I listened to her albums. My mother had them.

Jacqueline Woodson:  Tony Morrison's, The Bluest Eye, which is kind of funny tragic story, 'cause I read it the first time I was in fifth grade, fifth or sixth grade. And my memory of it was that Pecola Breedlove, who's the character, who's the tragic person in the book, she wants blue eyes. And the end -- at the end of the book she gets them, and lives happily ever after, and that was my memory of the book. And I read it again when I was in about seventh or eighth grade, and I understood what happened. And I thought there was an adult version of the book, and a children's version of the book. And for many years, I swore this was true! <laughs> So I would read books that were written for adults. And I think like most kids, I compartmentalized and understood what I could understand, and put the rest aside. <laughs>

Jo Reed:  Brown Girl Dreaming ends so beautifully with you coming into a place where you really decided you wanted to write. You were very, very young, a fifth grade teacher said, "You can write!" And that affirmation meant the world to you.

Jacqueline Woodson:  It still does. You know, it's interesting, because I was coming out of a community where you did not grow up to be a writer. <laughs> You grew up, you got a job, you moved out, you paid rent until you were able to buy a house. But the arts were not an option, or I thought they weren't an option.

Jo Reed:  From that point on, was writing your dream?

Jacqueline Woodson:  Writing had been my dream since I was seven-years-old, and it was just the thing that made me happiest. And if I was alone with a composition notebook, and a freshly sharpened pencil, my day was made! And if I could just sit for hours and spin stories verbally with my friends, then I was happy. But dream of actually making a living, and living a life as a writer, to this day, feels unbelievable! <laughs> That I was able to choose something I love so much and to spend so much of my life doing it. But it was from a very early age, and I also had a teacher who said, "When you choose a career, choose something you love doing, because you're going to be doing it for the rest of your life," and that made so much sense to me. I had watched my mom work her fingers to the bone, as she would always say, at Con Edison, and not be happy with her life. I had seen other parents working jobs, and going there every day, and their joy was the weekend with their family, but the job was not the joy. And it's a lot of hours to not have joy. So it definitely from a really young age was the one aspiration.

Jo Reed:  I assumed you had a day job at one point. When were you able to quit that and just focus on writing?

Jacqueline Woodson:  Yeah, I had many day jobs. In 1991, I got a fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and they give you a place to live in Provincetown, and a stipend for seven months. So you can go there and just basically create art without having to worry about other stuff. So you have to have a low overhead to begin with, right, to be able to just leave. And when I moved to Provincetown, I was there seven months, and then I realized I could find a place to live, for something like 250 dollars. I shared with my friend, Sarah Gray. And that was it! That was it. I realized I could write articles for the town paper, and make enough money to over my rent. I had written a couple of books. So I had some royalties coming in. And you know, I just lived very simply, and wrote there, and realized I was not going to go back to a day job. I did end up teaching. I helped start the MFA in Writing for children at Vermont College of Fine Arts. And I taught at Goddard, and I taught at The New School. But those were always adjunct or visiting faculty positions. I never wanted to do the whole tenure track thing of staying at a place.

Jo Reed:  Why did you choose to write for children and young adults?

Jacqueline Woodson:  I just think that's such an important period in time. It was such an important period in time for me. And the literature was so important. I mean, I don't know of an adult who can't look back and remember a book they read as a young person that changed their world. And I love young people, and I love their minds, and I feel very hopeful about who they are, and who they're becoming. And I love being able to go back into that period in time, and mine it for stories. Because the essence of childhood doesn't change, right? Even as the technology and everything else does, who we are and what we want as young people just continues.

Jo Reed:  We mentioned this in passing, that the Poetry Foundation has named you its Young People's Poet Laureate. Can you explain a bit about what that honor means, and what the responsibilities are?

Jacqueline Woodson:  It's a two-year term. And basically for two-years, you get to live a life of poetry, and go around the country and talk about poetry. I've spent a lot of time talking to young people about the power of poetry and their own access to it, and their ability to become poets. I have a page on the Poetry Foundation website, where I choose a book and a poem each month, and talk about why I chose it. So I think one of the things I remembered as a kid was having a hard time accessing poetry. Like I knew Langston Hughes, I knew Maya Angelou. I knew Nikki Giovanni. And I knew Robert Frost. But who were the other poets? And what did it mean, what did their poems mean? How did they write them? What were the different forms? And so being able to give young people access to that kind of information is really important to me. And also, I've gone around and talked to people and everything from juvenile detention centers to women's prisons, to community centers, to private schools! I mean, I've traveled a lot as Young People's Poet Laureate. And for me, personally, it means that someone believes in my poetry. And I know that sounds kind of whack in some ways, but I think writers-- and artists in general-- are always fighting imposter syndrome. "Is this valid? Am I just getting by? Is this real?" And there's a lot of reasons for that, including the fact that for so many years, people didn't see mirrors of themselves in the literature they read, and didn't think that they could be whoever it was they wanted to be. So yes there was Langston, yes, there was Maya: and Nikki, but they were all older than I was, and had written before me. And so for young people to be able to see current poets writing in different form, everything from spoken word, to free verse, to sonnets and sestinas, is important. So it's more work than I thought it was going to be. But it's good work.

Jo Reed:  I find people, especially younger people are more open to poetry because of rap and hip-hop. Are you seeing that, too?

Jacqueline Woodson:  Oh, definitely. And I think that they have to be reminded constantly that that is poetry, because I think there's been a history of divide in the communities of poets about what poetry is, and who can write poetry, and is spoken word truly poetry? Yes! Is rap truly poetry? Yes! You know, try to-- if someone's a formalist, ask him to try to spit a rhyme like Lin-Manuel Miranda, I don't think they can do it, you know? You know, so I think we have entered a new era where a lot of people are saying, "Yes, this is valid, too."

Jo Reed:  You know, I felt very sad, because I read-- I think it was in an article you wrote, or it was about you, you're speaking to either a teacher or a librarian in Kansas who felt very badly that she couldn't include "Brown Girl Dreaming" on her syllabus, because all she was just teaching white kids. I find that tragic.

Jacqueline Woodson:  Mm hm, mm hm, yeah. And it was scary! I mean, and I think that she's not alone in that feeling that, "I'm going to have a very homogenous classroom library, because I have a homogenous classroom," and not understanding the fact that, as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop talks about kids need both windows and mirrors. They need reflections of themselves in their literature, and they also need windows into worlds they might not otherwise ever be a part of. I mean, I think so much of the mess our country is in right now is because people don't have windows into other worlds, and as a result have a lot of fear about those worlds. And I think that's one thing literature can do is get rid of some of that fear.            

Jo Reed:  Yeah. Okay, what's next for you?

Jacqueline Woodson:  Next for me, I'm working. I just finished a picture book called, "There Will be Times," and it's about fear. And it begins, "There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is like you." And it's inspired by my great-great grandfather being the only black kid in his all-white school in Ohio. And it goes on to talk about what it means to wear Hijab, what it means to eat differently, what it means to live differently from others, and what it means to walk through the world and feel unembraced. So it's a picture book. It's coming out in 2018, and, and I'm working on a collection of poetry, and I'm working on an adult book that's non-fiction, that I can't talk about 'cause I haven't figured it completely out yet, and it's making me crazy!

Jo Reed:  Jacqueline, thank you so much!

Jacqueline Woodson:  Oh, Jo, it’s so great talking to you, thank you!

Jo Reed: That’s author Jacqueline Woodson. We were talking about her book, Another Brooklyn—a National Book award finalist and her first book for adults in twenty years. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

With Another Brooklyn, acclaimed children’s author Jacqueline Woodson creates an adult novel that reads like poetry