My name is Jacqueline Woodson, and I've known I wanted to be a writer since I was seven years old. I've written 29 books now, everything from picture books to middle grade to young adult, fiction. I write a lot of books across genres because I get bored just writing one thing.
I'm usually working on more than one book at a time, if I get bored with one, I go to the other. If I get bored with that, I go to the next. Most of my writing is realistic fiction except for Show Way which is a history of my family from my great-great grandma to the present.
But most of them are written about people who seem like they could be in the world. I get my ideas from everywhere from the newspaper, from things I see on the street, from other books I read, from talking to my friends, from talking to my family. I just think that ideas are in the air.
It starts with a character
Usually when I start to write a book, the first thing I have in my head is the character. I have the character, and the character's kind of formed. I don't know what they're gonna do, I don't know what they're gonna say, I don't know what their story is, but I just start writing.
I never outline. I never know where it's going. I just start writing and see where it takes me. Then I get to a point where I have to kind of figure it out. In the case of Hush which is a story of a girl and her family who become part of the witness protection program, I didn't know anything about the witness protection program.
When I realized that they were going to be a part of it, I had to start researching it. I have a couple of journalist friends. My friend Linda works for the New York Times, I asked her to gather as much information about it as she could, and she gathered 400 pages.
With Miracle's Boys which is about three brothers who are raising themselves after their parents die. I didn't know a lot about what it would mean for a young kid to raise his younger siblings, what it meant in terms of the socioeconomics of it, what it meant in terms of the legal issues surrounding it, what it meant in terms of education and the law.
I know law is the legal issue. I just had to kind of read about if a 21-year-old was raising his kids, who was be involved from the state? Who would be involved at the local level? And how would this all get monitored? Also, I didn't know a lot about diabetes.
I had to research that. If someone were to die from freezing, what would that look like? Those are the kind of things I read. I'll interrupt the writing and just spend some time researching it. A lot of it is done on the Internet.
When I was writing Feathers, I had studied sign language for many years, but there were signs that I couldn't remember, and I would look some of them up, and then I would have to sit and try to figure out how do I write that this is the sign for death, a finger moving from the ear to the mouth.
How do I write that this is the sign for hunger, a hand pulling itself down the belly. It's this kind of creative process mixed with the research and back to the creative, but all along the creative side of my brain is working to figure out how to put it on the page.
It's hard because I hadn't realized when I wrote Feathers that there weren't a lot of books about deaf culture. There had never been a book about an African American kid who was deaf. I just didn't know that, but I knew that I was writing realistic fiction, and I was writing about different cultures, and there are so many cultures in the world.
There is mine, the different cultures I come from. There're the cultures that I've found. There's the cultures that aren't even acknowledged as cultures. I thought it's amazing to have grown up and become this age and not ever have read a book about the deaf community.
I decided to make Sean deaf because Feathers is a book about the different ways people have hope in the world or search for hope in the world. I wanted Sean's journey in there, the journey of being deaf in a hearing family, and what does that mean.
I think it's something we don't think about a lot. I think we think of deafness as other. We think of it as something that is not a culture but, too often, people think of it as a handicap. Deaf should be a capital D just like African-American culture.
I wanted to put on the page a kid who had his culture, who had the deaf community and his world and a supportive family that wasn't saying be like us, but saying you're a gift to us, and we wanna move into your world.
Also his longing, because they all had longings, and his longing was to be a part of both worlds. He never says I want to be a hearing person. He says I wanna be a deaf person who can exist in both worlds the way you as a hearing person exist in my world.
It was important for me in talking about the ways people have hope and the ways people move through the world and showing this world through this group of young people. When I first started writing it, it was actually called The Jesus Boy. And Jesus Boy was the main character.
As the story started unfolding I thought, this is not simply about him but about this whole world of kids and their strength and their weaknesses and their journeys.
Show Way begins when Soonie's great-grandma was seven, and she was stolen from Virginia and sent to a plantation in South Carolina without her mom or pop.
I knew about my grandmother Soonie, and I knew about her grandmother, although I didn't know her name. When my grandmother was getting sick, my family would never tell me stories. They would talk to each other, well you remember when Soonie blah, blah, blah, or Soonie was so mean.
I caught snippets all my life, and I knew this family history sort of, but when my grandmother was getting older and had no great-grandchildren and I had been saying I was going to have a baby forever and I hadn't yet. She was getting older and she didn't think she would get any great-grandbabies, she said if you ever do have one, make sure you tell her about Soonie and how those blankets were made, and make sure Aunt Lucinda gives you one of the quilts and I had none of this information. I told her that one day when I had a baby I would like to give it one of the names of my family.
Just tell me everybody's names — she had 12 brothers and sisters. She started telling me the names which were like Birdie and I'm thinking, my child is not going to be named any of these names. But she told me more and more stories.
She died four months before I got pregnant with Toshi. I knew I wanted to tell the story of the maternal line of the family, so I started writing Show Way and I ended up going back to South Carolina to talk to my aunt who died soon after and to talk to my cousins, to piece together the history of the Underground Railroad and what part the Scotts played in it. That's how I got to the story and I also wanted to write about how I'm not here accidentally, I'm not sitting here and talking about my writing.
I'm not here as a mom, I'm not here as an activist and all the things that I try to do because I just decided to do it one day, I'm here because my mother was part of the Civil Rights movement out here because my grandmother was a teacher. I'm here because my great-great-grandparents were a part of the Underground Railroad.
I'm here because of the quilts, I'm here because of the language. I'm here because of the food and my daughter is too. I wanted to keep that strand going and acknowledge the people that came before me. I had no idea that there was controversy regarding the fact that folks were using the Underground Railroad.
I remember the first time I heard it and I thought, well my grandmother wasn't lying. This woman said, there's no written documentation. The history of African-Americans is oral history. We were not allowed to learn to read and write.
Nobody was going to go up in the big house and say, master, can you write down this story about how we're escaping using these quilts and the Underground Railroad? I mean it was so ridiculous to me on so many levels, so a lot of our history, we only had names and birth dates and stuff written in Bibles.
I think it was the early 1900s, there was some sense of this stuff that we were able to access. One of the controversies was the black square in the middle of one of the quilt pieces because it was black and they said there was no black at that time. It turned out it was indigo.
I was so stunned because I thought, how dare you doubt my history, how dare you call my grandma a liar and the people who came before her. If that's the case, then how are we here? I think there is the part of my people who wanted to help that slave have the ability to get free.
There's a lot more documentation now. It's really interesting because it happened to me twice, it happened and I haven't written about the second time yet, but the second time is the Woodson side. I don't know if you know the Woodson side, but that's Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.
The Woodson line comes out of that and we always knew that and first as an adult, they were saying Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson were never together. Well they were together but they didn't have children, yeah well they had children, but Woodson blended children.
They finally did DNA testing and they realized, oops, yes, these are the descendants and I think in terms of being a writer and thinking about our history and how important it is to write stuff down. Like a lot of the stuff obviously that I write, is realistic fiction.
I am thinking more and more about writing more non-fiction just to bear witness and document what I know, what I've experienced and to not lose these strands and Show Way is a line, that slave was killed running off to the North side of the War a month before he got to meet his baby girl, a girl child who was born free that same year, 1863.
History went and lost her name, years later Soonie came. That was Soonie's mother and we don't have any documentation of her name. I thought as I was writing Show Way that I'd make up a name for her, and then I thought no, I think this needs to be written down that we did lose some of our history on this journey.
Reaching reluctant readers
I think the thing about kids who are reluctant to pick up books, to read, I think it's two-fold. I was a slow reader. I struggled as a reader, and I think part of it was I didn't care about the books that people were giving me to read. Growing up in the 1970s and trying to find myself on the page was not happening.
There was Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Phyllis Wheatley, and everyone had been a slave, or escaped slavery, or learned to read during slavery, or, like, beat up someone during slavery. I was like, OK, this is the 1970s, have my people done anything since then?
Of course I didn't know how to ask those questions, I was in the 2nd grade. When finally I discovered John Steptoe's book Stevie, and it was a book where the people spoke like me, the people look like me, they probably lived in New York City, their apartment looked like my house.
It was eye-opening and it got me excited about reading. I went on from there to The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde and to Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Match Girl. I could begin to find parts of myself in books that seemingly had nothing to do with me.
I think we have to be respectful of the young people and say where are you in this book. I think that's the first thing to get them to see themselves in the literature. In Locomotion there are so many kids, black, white, Latino, Chicano, who live like Lonnie lives.
There are so many kids who don't but who know what it means to have been away from someone they loved, to know what it means to kind of have this story that you're eager to tell and no one has ever said to you you have a right to tell it as his teacher finally says to him.
Many kids have some kind of longing for home, for a certain kind of family, for food, whatever it is, and find themselves on the pages. I think the other thing if I think if you're a struggling reader, reading can be really overwhelming to you.
The idea of someone handing you a book that's 50 pages, that's 100 pages, that's 150 pages, it's like, where do you even begin? I always think it's important to give kids one paragraph, and let them expound about that paragraph.
Let that paragraph make them hungry for more. You give them small portions of things, and you let them grow to be hungry for more and more, and eventually they are.
Then there are the kids who might not be reading fiction, who are looking for non-fiction, who are looking for poetry, who are looking for spoken word, whose way of understanding their move toward comprehension is more oral, so a book on tape is probably the way to go or an excerpt from a book on tape.
On my website I have a video of Feathers, and it's a visual description of what the girl is talking about because some people need that. They need to see the picture in order to understand the words. I think that shift from picture books to non-illustrated books is fast.
All of a sudden you've comprehended something, and the pictures disappear, and whoa, I'm not supposed to be reading those anymore. I think it's important for middle graders, for high schoolers, to be able to go back to picture books and to learn how to read and understand and write.
When I'm stuck as a writer, I go right back to the picture books because the language is simple, deceptively simple, and it's immediate, and it's not overwhelming. I think so much of it is how we get overwhelmed.
Books begin a discussion
I think the thing I try to do as a writer is to bring worlds to the page. What happens with readers is they step inside those worlds, and they experience them in a way that they might not in their real life, and it gives them a chance to think about a bigger society and the greater good.
I mean, the constant question kids ask themselves is if it was me, what would I do? How would I engage with it? How would I treat the Jesus Boy? How would I treat Sean? Who would I be? Would I be Frannie or would I be someone else in this.
By the time they get to the end of the book, the asking of what happens next, what happens next? My question always to young people is, well, what do you think happens next or what would happen if it was your story or if you were one of these characters?
Young people get mad at me all the time and write, say, well, why did you decide that that kid had to die or that that kid had to move away or that Lonnie is not reunited with his sister?
I think it's a way of beginning a discussion. What's the happily ever after? How often does the happily ever after happen? In the real world, what have you experienced, or what do you see, or what do you know from your family?
I think in terms of getting young people to talk about their lives, and then to talk about the lives of others, and to talk about events in the world. It's such a social period from kindergarten to first grade in the picture book time.
They're learning how to get along. They're learning how to be in the world. They're learning how to be human in the world. When they get to be adolescents, they're learning who they are and their power in the world. They're learning about identity politics, who names them, how they name themselves.
A lot of what Hush, the book about the witness protection program, the big question is, when someone takes your name away, who do you become? If I woke up tomorrow and I couldn't be Jacqueline Woodson, what would that mean? How would I begin to re-identify myself?
I think a lot of that stuff is stuff kids are wondering and thinking about and talking about every day. For me to be able to sit down and create a world where they can exist in it. John Gardner who wrote a book called Becoming a Novelist talks about the fictive dream, the dream of fiction, and how when you're reading a book, you're in that dream.
That world is real to you, and you're a part of it. No one can tell you those people don't exist. I think that when I sit down and try to create that dream of fiction, first for myself and then for my readers, by the time I'm finished with a book, the readers really do believe and care about and love the characters.
When they love someone, they'll do whatever they can to kind of protect them and hold on to them and change the world for them. I think that's the big gift of fiction. It gives young people the courage to create change and to talk about change and to talk about different ways of being in the world, of themselves being the world, of adults being in the world, of what's wrong with the world, what's right with it.
Looking for themselves
I think there's always gonna be a gap for young people looking for images of themselves in the literature, and I think, partly, it's because everything's changing so quickly. I think at the same time, the essence of childhood doesn't change.
What young people want are stories that deal with issues of them trying to figure out who they are in the world. They feel isolated, they feel like they're the only ones like that, that their crazy family is the only crazy family like that, and that their longings are the only longings like that.
I think they're going to they find their way. I was talking about this yesterday, young people are hungry, and their brains are huge, and they are going to find their way the way we found our way. And I think there's going to be the literature that helps.
I think there's always a need for more stories. I get constant emails about why there isn't more literature targeted at gay/lesbian/transgender youth? Why isn't there more literature targeted at biracial families?
More literature that's targeted at single-parent families and parents. Of course, with all the foreclosures, what does it mean to suddenly lose your home and that whole issue of displacement which we weren't dealing with so much in the '70s and '80s and '90s as we are dealing with now.
How does the shaky ground keep them steady and how do they move with it? I think that there's always going to be a hunger. They're always going to have a hunger because that's what adolescence is, and there's always going to be a certain sorrow to their existence because they need to live in that world.
Reading beyond themselves
I know it sounds cliché, but I was in Kansas, I was in Topeka, and it was an all white school, and the teacher said to me, well, we don't get a lot of books about African Americans because we don't have African Americans in our class, in our school.
I thought, are your kids always going to be here? I said, when your kids leave here and they come to New York City, I don't want my child to be the first black person they ever encounter, because that's gonna be way too foreign for them, so why don't we start with the literature.
I think it's important that if your school system is not racially or economically or diverse in terms of gender, that the books still reflect that because the kids need to meet people unlike themselves and find a place in those people and in the story where they are, they share a common ground.
Because it's the beginning of the connection that literature's trying to form, that education is trying to form. We're trying to figure out how to connect with people and work together and make a better world. I mean that's what education is, is about understanding, it's about overcoming ignorance, it's about overcoming intolerance and you now bigotry.
The more people know about other people, the less doubt there will be. I think that we have to constantly publish books that talk about that. There's always going to be a need and I think now we have a lot of books and if you use a lot more books.
I think there is a need of getting more books out into the world and people realizing that this book about this gay white boy from California is very valid in my classroom because I don't want my kids to grow up to beat up this boy. That kind of stuff is so important.
We still have a lot of issues of censoring, censorship, of books getting challenged, of parents thinking they know what the book's about by reading the flap copy and deciding that's enough and not allow their kids to read the book. We're still living a time of fear and censorship which is heartbreaking.
In terms of writing, I never think of myself as controversial. Other people call it that, but I think of it as real world, I write realistic fiction and in writing realistic fiction, I try to represent all the people and as many people as I can get in the world who are walking through the world on sort of pages.
I remember when I wrote If You Come Softly which is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet and I tried to make a present day story about Romeo and Juliet and the kind of relationship, between a middle class African-American boy and a middle class white Jewish girl.
It got challenged and it got challenged because of the inter-racial relationship, and this is what 30 years, 40 years after the miscegenation laws were taken out of the world.
I don't get to experience it a lot, but I know people do say, why do you write about stuff like this, like people say, well where's the dad in that book? That book is just about a mom and a daughter. I'll say, well by a show of hands, how many of you live with your mom and dad?
Maybe half or a quarter will raise their hands, and then how many of you live with your mom, how many of you live with your grandma, how many of you live with foster parents, how many of you live with two moms or two dads?. Then I talk about how there are all kinds of ways to have family and that's why in those books, that's that family. We don't know where the dad is, because I didn't write him into the book.
I'm also really careful in how I qualify. One thing I grew up with was literature where I'd read and it'd say, well a boy walked down the street and then a girl walked down the street and then a black boy walked down the street. I thought, okay so I assume whiteness unless otherwise stated.
I never do that. When I was teaching, I never let my students do that, if you qualify the race of one, qualify the race of the other so that the reader doesn't feel like I'm on the outside of this because I'm that black boy reading this story or I'm that white boy reading this story.
That kind of stuff is really important and urgent to me, but I think a lot of times people are uncomfortable with it and they're going to continue to be uncomfortable with. I think it's part of the reason I write for young adults because they're not.
They're just figuring it all out and they're open and they're brilliant. They're going to change the world.
Developing a voice
I wanted to be a writer since I was seven, but I didn't grow up in family where there were writers, I'm trying to write things, I want to grow up and be homeless. My family said you're never going to make any money, are you crazy, this isn't what we do, you need to get a job.
Okay that's a nice hobby, what are you going to do to make some money and eventually get out of house? I wouldn't tell the truth, I would say, I'm going to be a teacher, I'm going to be a lawyer, I'm going to be a hairdresser, whatever. But I knew I was going to be a writer.
I wrote all the time and I had teachers who encourage it. I had teachers who saw that brilliance is passionately recognized, that if someone has something they're really passionate at, that's their brilliance, and how do we grow that or help them to grow that?
I wrote all the time, I copied writers. I remember finding a collection of poems, American Negro poetry anthology and I read it through, I memorized all these poems. I started to write like Vaughn McKay and Arthur Lloyd and Langston Hughes, of course.
I just knew that I wanted to be a writer, and when my family realized I was serious, I would walk into the room, they would get quiet because they're thinking, she's going to write all about us and she's writing and I'm thinking, you guys are not that interesting.
I couldn't say that, I would get in trouble. I wanted to write about my community because I wanted to put the world I knew on the page. I had never read books about Brooklyn, I had never read books about people going from Brooklyn to South Carolina and back again until I read Zeely by Virginia Hamilton.
That was one of the first books that I thought, wow, not only is this person writing about stuff that I know but it's a black woman writing about it. Black women do write books and it was a moment that turned me around, just like the moment with John Steptoe and reading Stevie.
I started discovering other writers like James Baldwin and Alex Walker and reading all these stories that were so populated with people who were familiar to me, really just made the fire to write burn even hotter.
I wrote all the time and the first novel was Last Summer with Maizon which is about two girls growing up in Brooklyn and one gets accepted to a predominantly white boarding school and what that means to leave your community and come back to your community.
What does it mean to the people who you've left? Then as I got braver as a writer, I started moving out of my community and feel in the first book, The Notebooks of Melon and Son was the first time I wrote from the point of view of a guy. I'd written all these books from the point of view of girls and I said, I know can do that.
Let me try this other thing and it took forever, it took about two and a half years and I just struggled and I couldn't get his voice on the page. I asked my brothers and they didn't remember what it was like to be that age. I watched guys on the playground and that wasn't what I was going for.
I just did this thing where I said, if I had a son what would he do right? What would I want to be like? If I had a best friend that was a boy, what would he be like? If three boys were in a room, what would they talk about and just ask myself all these questions and finally started forming this kid.
The more I wrote him, the more I liked him and the more I tried to make them real. From there, I went on to write I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This, which was the first time I wrote from the point of view of a poor white girl, and then If You Come Softly and Miracle Boys with all guys in it, trying to write a book that didn't have any girls in it.
Don't worry about the audience
One of the things I find a lot when I'm traveling is that kids talk about having writer's block and I actually don't believe in writer's block. I think it's more fear based and I think it's important that we get young people to realize, as I said earlier, they have stories to tell and they have a right to tell those stories.
I think once they're freed up to know they have a right to tell those stories, and they begin to tell them without the judgment of family or friends or teachers. I always think it's important to say to kids when you give them a writing assignment that no one is going to see this.
Write as much as you want and tell everything and put it all on the page. Then rewrite it and rewrite and in that rewrite, put down everything you want us to see and get rid of everything else. That gives them a draft and a rewrite almost immediately.
Then the next time you write, say well, this time you're going to read it out loud, why don't you practice reading out loud, do you like the way it sounds? Are you stumbling over any words? But also keep it short. I think not to write three pages but to write a page and sometimes when you have to write a page, but write a paragraph.
For the young writers, try to write 15 minutes a day and tell your story and read. I mean the way your learn to write is by reading and reading the same books sometimes over and over and understanding how the author tells the story and how you probably have a lot in common with what the author is doing.
Excerpt from Peace, Locomotion
My name is Jacqueline Woodson, and this is Peace, Locomotion which is a sequel to Locomotion, and Locomotion was written entirely in verse. He was learning how to write poetry and tell the story of his life through poetry. Then I decided to write a sequel, and it's written in letters.
These are letters to his younger sister chronicling the time that they're separated which is now. They're living apart, and he's living with his foster mom and a foster brother named Rodney, and he has a second foster brother who's fighting in the war. This is a letter to his