Many thanks to Matt Black of the blog The Little Engine that Couldn’t for hosting this “Young Adult Literature” blog party, which inspired me to pull this post together! Matt’s a teenager who has more common sense that (dare I say) most adults, which just goes to show that age isn’t always correlated with sense.
Jacqueline Woodson is a well-known children’s writer whose wonderful work has been recognized recently in the form of a Hans Christian Andersen nomination. For those unfamiliar with this honor, the Hans Christian Andersen award is the most prestigious international recognition of children’s writers and illustrators. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Woodson now lives in Brooklyn with her female partner and two children. Her novels usually feature African-American adolescents exploring self-identity while grappling with a wide range of difficult, realistic issues.
To introduce you to the wonderful Ms. Woodson, I will break this post into 2 parts. First is a Q&A with the author that took place during the U.S. Board on Books for Young People conference in St. Louis last month. (No, I didn’t conduct the interview, just took prolific notes). The second is a short review of her Newberry Honor Book After Tupac and D Foster, which, excitingly, I got signed by the author herself!
(Bryan Collier, an American illustrator, also participated in the Q&A. For the purpose of brevity, I haven’t included his answers here. But that may be in a future post!)
Please note that I took handwritten notes during the Q&A, and therefore some of the text below is an approximation. When I managed to record an exact quote, it is denoted by…you guessed it…quotation marks!
Q: The U.S. Board on Books for Young People was looking for a range of different styles and perspectives when we selected the nominees for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. How do you feel about your ability to represent the U.S.?
Woodson: “Representing the United States is very complicated.” I write from a sense of being on the outside. “I feel like I’ve always been in the world but not of the world.” [I believe what she meant was that as an African-American woman, she is able to express a different way of seeing the world in her books for children.]
Q: The image of the American flag is perceived quite differently abroad. Is it a risk traveling to other countries as an official representative of the United States?
Woodson: “We take the risk here first.” What keeps me writing are the readers, and “that reader is waiting everywhere” in the world, not just the United States. “I write these books because I’ve been waiting my whole life for them…I’ve gotten censored in this country lots.” All it does it help to get the book out faster! I remember when I won the Coretta Scott King Award [in 2001 for Miracle’s Boys]. There was a picket line outside of the building where I was supposed to officially receive the award in San Francisco. I refused to cross that picket line. We held another ceremony in a different location instead.
Q: Is is easier for you to get books about slavery and Martin Luther King published over just regular stories about African-American life in America?
Woodson: Not for me. But publishing is changing so quickly, and not necessarily in a favorable way for people of color. Speculative fiction is now very popular, and I tend to write more realistic fiction. And “people don’t gather in the same way anymore.” The Internet is so vast and confusing. I think to some extent it’s keeping the stories from getting out into the world.
A final, insightful quote from Woodson: “I always write because I have questions, not because I have answers.”
After Tupac and D Foster
I selected this book at random from a pile by Woodson that were on sale at the conference. I chose it because of the title…I knew who Tupac was, and I originally thought that “D Foster” referred to David Foster Wallace or possibly William D. Foster. That was not the case…
The book is about two African-American girls growing up in Queens. They are insanely close friends, having lived across the street from each other since they were born. One day, a mysterious girl named D Foster shows up on their block and asks them to play Double Dutch. They oblige, curious about where this girl with the strange, beautiful green eyes came from.
It turns out that D, who doesn’t reveal her full name until the end of the book, is a foster kid (hence the last name) who likes to wander around the city and escape the watchful eye of her foster mother. Her loneliness is heartbreaking and obvious, and the two close friends soon become an inseparable trio.
I was impressed by this novel for many, many reasons, but I’ll just attempt to share a couple of them here. First, the language. It’s not often you find books written in a genuine, contemporary African-American dialect. The only good examples that I know of are books from quite a long time ago–Huckleberry Finn, which for obvious reasons isn’t the most accurate representation, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was published in 1937 by Zora Neale Hurston. Perhaps there are other, more recent examples, but since the African-American style of speaking is often stigmatized, I would argue that it’s comparatively unusual to find it in mainstream texts. Woodson writes naturally; some words are different (“moms” instead of “mom,” for example), but it’s not an exaggeration. It’s written the way that real people would actually talk.
Second, the range of issues that Woodson manages to include in a relatively short 150-page novel is astounding. She addresses homophobia, discusses systemic racism and structural violence against black bodies, includes a range of family types–from foster kid to only child & single mother to six-sibling family–and has one of the most important scenes in the book take place in a jail. So! I can understand why some people would feel nervous about her books, and why they have been banned in some places. But her criticism is channeled through a 12-year-old African-American girl, and thus is implicit rather than constructed. One might read this book, for example, and realize that it’s true that one family can be challenged by ALL of these issues at the same time, and that furthermore, this is a typical–not unusual–portrait of what it’s like to be an African-American girl growing up in the United States.
All in all, I really wish that I had read this novel, and others like it, when I was younger. To be honest, I never found anything like Woodson’s work in school libraries. Perhaps this is because I attended elementary school in a conservative region of North Texas and then middle school in small-town, rural Illinois. While I appreciate what books like The Secret Garden and A Little Princess and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn have to offer, none of them even come close to discussing what Woodson does in After Tupac and D Foster. I can say with certainty that my own adolescence would have been richly supplanted with the alternative perspective offered in Woodson’s books for young adults.
P.S. If you care to view the rest of the posts from everyone who participated in this YA blog party, just click here.