Jacqueline Woodson: Poetry in Motion, by Jessica Rae Patton
A lifetime achievement award — at 43! — won't slow down this category-defying author
Jacqueline Woodson is too busy for writer's block. That's not how she puts it; when asked her take on the topic, she chalks up her ability to have multiple book projects going at once to a short attention span. "I get bored with one so I think, 'Okay, let me switch gears here,'" she told us with a self-effacing laugh. This restless spirit has resulted in a body of work so impressive in subject matter, lyrical writing and cultural importance that Jacqueline was just given the American Library Association's 2006 Margaret A. Edwards Lifetime Achievement Award – at the age of 43. Her 20-plus books span from picture books to those for middle school and young adult readers, as well as one adult novel. Among these are 2006 Newbery Honor book Show Way (Putnam Juvenile, 2005); Locomotion (Puffin, 2004), a National Book Award finalist and winner of the 2003 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award; Coming On Home Soon (Putnam Juvenile, 2004), a Caldecott Honor book and Miracle's Boys (Speak, 2001), which won the Coretta Scott King award and was made into a TV miniseries.
A writer's life. Jackie didn't begin her career writing children's literature. "I did short stories; I wrote a novel. I didn't know [I would write children's books] until I started writing Last Summer with Maizon (Puffin, 1991) and someone said, 'This is a children's book.' Then I started to shape it as such." She explained that when she was younger, "I just didn't have an idea that this is what I could do."
Jackie writes full-time, except for two weeks in the summer when she teaches at a camp for kids from under-served communities. She spent a lot of time in the past visiting schools, but has cut back as of late. "In one respect it feeds me as a writer [to visit classrooms]. I get in there and see what kind of impact I'm having and it makes me want to go back and do that work," she said. "But then I spend days thinking about the kids…they're in my head and I'm self-conscious of my process, which I don't want to be when I'm writing."
The odds are stacked that Jacqueline Woodson has a "lifetime" more of compelling kid's books in her.
Studying separateness. One thing Jackie still recounts from her school visits with surprise is the experience of encountering kids who had never before met a black person, and likewise children who'd never met a white person. "Seeing that in our educational system there's still so much segregation made me really start thinking about the subject in a new way."
As it turns out, segregation isn't a topic she's had to travel far from home to explore. The brown-stone she shares with her partner and their young daughter is in a beautiful Brooklyn neighborhood of quiet side streets, with sidewalks wide enough to accommodate trees and pedestrians, baby strollers and dog-walkers. Neighbors chat in passing or while tending to their bite-sized front yards. Jackie often sits on her stoop to write. It seems all the world like an idyllic urban neighborhood of myriad races and nationalities, with businesses on the main streets that reflect the area's multiethnic makeup.
So it is surprising that it's this neighborhood that inspired The Other Side (Putnam Juvenile, 2001), Jackie's celebrated picture book about two little girls, one black and one white, who forge a friendship sitting atop a fence that runs through their town – a fence they've both been instructed not to cross. "We're the only family of color on this block," Jackie told us. "You have certain blocks where people of color have never lived, and other blocks with predominantly people of color…block to block it's very segregated."
Interestingly, it was the illustrator of The Other Side, E.B. Lewis, who established the book's time period as the '50s through his interpretations of Jackie's text in his paintings. What was it like to see her work portrayed so differently than she'd intended while writing it? "It's a good thing, in the end," Jackie said. "If it had been set in present day, it wouldn't have gotten the same attention. I think people are not as comfortable talking about racism in the present day as they are in the past. So it became a vehicle for talking about the present through the past."
Books as vehicles. Jackie's characters all ask hard questions of themselves, their families and communities — and by extension, the reader — about race, economic class and social and sexual identity. The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books has called Jackie "a writer of exceptional integrity," and as sensitive as some may consider her subject matter, her stories never feel didactic or like vehicles for a particular perspective. If anything, they are vehicles for conversations about subjects that all young people deal with as they navigate their worlds. "I think one of the big themes of childhood is kids' own individuation, whether it's individuation from peers, parents or a community," Jackie said. "I just try to write these books to teach kids to feel empowered, whoever they are."
"Reason for poetry." Having written books for the very young through young adults, Jackie has also embraced various writing styles, from third-person narrative to vignettes to poems. She loves poetry "if there's a reason for it" in a story. Locomotion is about a boy who is learning to write poetry, so the book naturally lends itself to this form and is written entirely in various poetry styles. Her picture books, because there is such a tight constraint on text length, also work well with the condensed nature of poem. Her latest and highly lauded picture book, Show Way, is a poem about the quilting tradition slaves used to disguise, in fabric, routes to freedom. (It's also an ancestral autobiography of women passing down show ways – in the form of quilts and also stories, songs and visual art — from "Soonie's great-great-grandma" to Soonie's great-great-granddaughter: Jackie's daughter, Toshi.)
In Jackie's young adult novels, the teenage characters have longer arcs of memory and more life experiences to pull from, demanding a longer narration. Another form she's used is the vignette, as in Behind You (Putnam, 2004), the story of a deceased teenage boy told from many different characters' perspectives, including his own. "I think vignettes are about an urgency. For the characters in Behind You, the urgency was to try to heal and move on. I thought it should be told in really short moments because that's what you're living when you're grieving."
One senses an urgency in all of Jacqueline Woodson's books, no matter the form in which they're told or nature of subject. "I can go to really hard places, but there has to be hope in there somewhere," Jackie said. We think her stories have enough hope to last at least another lifetime.
Jessica Rae Patton, associate editor Teaching K-8 magazine.