My first thought when I saw Jacqueline Woodson in person was that she was tall—to be fair though, I’m five feet tall, so everyone is tall to me. My second thought was brief panic. There I was, about to introduce myself to a literary rockstar. I don’t know why I was worried; she told me she liked my skirt, and we set off.
Jacqueline Woodson was the keynote speaker at Kansas State University on April 21, 2018 for the Sixth Biennial Conference of Children’s Literature in English, Education, and Library Science hosted by the Children’s and Adolescent Literature Community, of which I am a member. The conference theme, “Boundary Crossings in Children’s and Young Adult Literature,” was inspired by Woodson’s work.
Before she spoke, I had the opportunity to accompany Dr. Anne Phillips, my adolescent literature professor, to pick Woodson up from her hotel and accompany her to the location of the conference. I was delighted to have this opportunity, and am so grateful that Anne helped arrange it. On our car ride (through the rare Kansas rain) and short walk, I had the opportunity to ask Woodson a few questions.
As luck would have it, I asked Woodson a couple of things that she was planning on discussing in her talk, titled “Behind the Books” (which I explore in depth below, don’t worry), but I still had a great time talking with her. I asked Woodson what her favorite part of being National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature is. Understandably, she said that it was difficult to say because she’s only been in the position for a short while; however, she said that she likes having an opportunity to take the position and make it hers because it’s a newer position and there’s a lot of flexibility and freedom with in it.
I also asked what she liked to read as a kid, and she mentioned picture books and realistic fiction. She mentioned Mildred Taylor’s works as well. That prompted her to ask what I liked to read which led us to discuss Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X. Woodson and I also talked about the recent New York Times interview which featured her and Tracy K. Smith, United States Poet Laureate. I’d highly recommend checking it out.
Manhattan, KS isn’t a huge town so at that point we’d arrived at our final destination, and Jacqueline went to get some coffee before her presentation. I purchased a copy of Brown Girl Dreaming for Woodson to sign after her presentation. (I know: before you judge me, I’m ashamed that I didn’t already own a copy.)
Jacqueline Woodson is a dynamic speaker. She explained early in her presentation that New Yorkers go off on tangents, but they always come back to the topics they started on, and the tangents served a point. One recurring idea that Woodson returned to was that books can serve as both mirrors and windows (a concept which she attributed to Dr. Rudine Sims). We can see ourselves in them, but we also can see others’ perspectives through them. It’s important that readers can get both experiences as they read various books.
First, Woodson read from her picture book Each Kindness. I wasn’t familiar with that work; however, Woodson read the book to the audience (You can listen to her read it on her YouTube channel), and then explained why she wrote it. It was inspired by an interaction she observed between two children when her son was in elementary school. Furthermore, she wanted to explore that idea that you don’t always get tomorrow or another chance to remedy a situation. As a writer, she feels a responsibility to not create characters that are pitiful, and to give her characters agency. Each Kindness serves as a lesson about empathy, and it offers insight about how we can teach it. We set the tone of empathy, and part of that is based upon assumptions. We need to not make assumptions about youth in any situation. For example, not every child may have a bed at home depending on their situation, so we shouldn’t make that assumption. No one wants to be outside of a certain space, but all of us are in some way and we have to learn how to navigate those experiences. Empathy from others can be a part of that.
Woodson then turned to (National Book Award recipient) Brown Girl Dreaming and spent a majority of her presentation drawing connections to that work, and to her own experiences as a writer. Woodson says that it stemmed from her search for legitimacy in the world through narrative. Plus, a teacher told her once that if you wrote down a lie it wasn’t a lie—it was fiction. Woodson wanted to write about her life experiences, and those memories came as small moments with lots of white space, not as chronologically ordered chapters, which is why the verse genre was most appropriate. She wanted to tell the story of her family. It took Woodson 3.5 years to write the book, and when her mother died halfway through it, she said it was a call to get the story done.
Woodson’s presentation concluded with her taking questions from the audience. She gave advice about inclusive art, discussed engagement with the #MeToo Movement, and talked about faith, which plays a large part in Brown Girl Dreaming. However, my favorite question, which I’m going to discuss further here (because it’s my blog and I can do what I want) was about how she defines “ambassador” considering her role as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
I’m glad that this questions was asked because it stemmed back to one of my questions for Woodson which was about her platform for the ambassador position, which is “READING = HOPE x CHANGE” (What’s your equation?).
When Woodson answered this, she mentioned that she’d promised me she’d talk about that in her talk (so that was a fun shout-out). Woodson referred to having the ability to create what the position looks like for her. This year, Woodson also has been awarded the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (an American award) and the Astrid Lindgren Award (a Swedish award), which she referred to jokingly as “the colonizer awards” because of the problems associated with the literary works of those authors. Woodson explained that the history of those awards is being cross-examined, whereas with this position she can create her own history for it.
Woodson explained that she built her platform around the idea that we read books because we’re hopeful for something and we want to get something out of them. Additionally, she believes that we change after we read a book. Woodson tied those ideas together through her equation. She thinks that we need to “gather” people together in rooms and have face-to-face conversations about difficult topics in which literature can be used as a jumping-off point. Woodson has done work in schools and juvenile detention centers based on these ideas and will do more in the next year.
After enthusiastic applause from the crowd, Jacqueline Woodson held a signing. I took a picture with her and thanked her again for talking with me before her keynote presentation. Then she signed my new copy of Brown Girl Dreaming. And that was that.
I’d been so anxious in the days leading up to this event because I’m a panicker, but it was phenomenal to converse with this influential author and ambassador, and I’m so grateful that I was given that opportunity. I’m going to continue to read Woodson’s books, and if you made it all the way through this post and haven’t read any of them, then I think you should. (Start with Locomotion, says Professor Phillips!) I’m going to be following Woodson’s experiences as the National Ambassador for Young People’s literature and you can expect a post or two more in the future concerning this subject.
My favorite line from Woodson’s presentation, quoted as I wrote it down, was this: “I truly believe was all have a brilliance, and that brilliance is our passion recognized.” Woodson was connecting back to her own writing, and her experiences growing up with (and following after) an older sister who was referred to as “brilliant” by her teachers. They expected Woodson to demonstrate the same brilliance, but she was a slow reader and often felt less than brilliant. I think Jacqueline Woodson is brilliant. Her books, the stories behind them, and how she engages with the world showed me that brilliance both in our conversation and in her presentation.