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Profile of 2015 CSK Author winner Jacqueline Woodson

Photo: Marty Umans

Photo: Marty Umans

One of the greatest joys of my career has been seeing Brown Girl Dreaming come to life and reverberate as it has been handed from reader to reader.

I have been lucky enough to work with Jacqueline Woodson for almost twenty years. She was the very first author I signed up when I became the publisher of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Her lyrical writing sang to me. Her voice was so strong and clear and evocative. I also loved her spare style, how she could make magic happen with an economy of words. Since then I’ve edited six of her amazing picture books; Brown Girl Dreaming is the tenth novel we’ve worked on together.

I never know what I am going to get next from Jacqueline, and I am always happily surprised. The muse strikes her, and then she sends her stories to me at various stages in the creative process. Some of the picture books, such as Show Way and Each Kindness, were practically perfect and complete when I received them. The main challenge for those titles was finding the right illustrator. The early drafts of the novels usually come in with much of the story in place, but lots of holes to fill in. So I start by asking questions. I love every character and always want to know more. With Brown Girl Dreaming — a memoir in verse — boy, did I want to know more about a character I loved!

When I received the first draft of Brown Girl Dreaming in 2012, I knew I was holding something special in my hands. Many of the poems from the first section were already there, including the opening one, which begins:

I am born on a Tuesday at University
Hospital
Columbus, Ohio,
USA—
a country caught

between Black and White.

Right from the beginning, we know we are going to get a story that is deeply personal but also one that tells of a shared history—the racial divide that is part of America—and readers will experience it from the eyes of a child who has lived in the North and the South. And because of the book’s title, we know we are in the hands of a dreamer, a young girl who has hope and aspirations. She is an observant student of the world around her. I love how she contemplates who she might become in the future by her admiration of those who have come before her:

I do not know if these hands will become
Malcolm’s—raised and fisted
or Martin’s—open and asking
or James’s—curled around a pen.

Through Jacqueline’s eyes we see, and then feel, the terrible injustice that a dignified black woman, her beloved grandmother, had to live through on a daily basis:

We walk straight past Woolworth’s
without even looking in the windows
because the one time my grandmother
went inside
they made her wait and wait. Acted like
I wasn’t even there. It’s hard not to see the
moment—
my grandmother in her Sunday clothes,
a hat
with a flower pinned to it
neatly on her head, her patent-leather
purse,
perfectly clasped
between her gloved hands—waiting
quietly
long past her turn.

As we witness her grandmother’s ordeal, our hearts are broken by something we cannot fix. But we gain such insight into how families like Jacqueline’s figured out ways to fight back, ways to bring about the change the world so desperately needed:

This is the way brown people have to fight,
my grandfather says.
You can’t just put your fist up. You have to
     insist
on something
gently. Walk toward a thing
slowly.

But be ready to die,
my grandfather says,
for what is right.

woodson_brown girl dreaming_170x258As I read each draft of Brown Girl Dreaming — and, as Jacqueline says, there were so dang many of them! — I wanted more and more answers. I wanted to know about the love she felt for both her Southern and Northern roots and what it felt like to have a special place in her heart for each of them. I wanted to know what it was like when her mother bravely went off alone to search for a place to bring up her four children, a place that would offer them the most freedom and opportunity.

Looking for her next place.
Our next place.
Right now, our mother says,
we’re only halfway home.

And I imagine her standing
in the middle of a road, her arms out
fingers pointing North and South.

I want to ask:
Will there always be a road?
Will there always be a bus?
Will we always have to choose
between home

and home?

The book grew from three parts to five, as it became clear that more ground needed to be covered for the many facets of Jacqueline’s life. Please tell me more about your religion, I asked. What was it like to go door-to-door as a Jehovah’s Witness and have to introduce yourself to strangers? And in the telling, more stories emerged. Jacqueline’s grandfather (called “Daddy”), as it turned out, did not embrace organized religion. Her uncle, while in jail, converted to Islam. And in living through all this, Jacqueline
grew more open and empathetic to other people’s beliefs:

But I want the world where my daddy is
and don’t know why
anybody’s God would make me
have to choose.

One of the best parts of editing this memoir was learning about how storytelling was a part of young Jacqueline’s life. How she could hold her classmates rapt by repeating stories even before she learned to read. How she knew, early on, that there was enormous power in words:

I want to catch words one day. I want to
hold them
then blow gently,
watch them float
right out of my hands.

And so she has. Jacqueline’s words in Brown Girl Dreaming float off the page; they first linger and then stay even longer with the reader. When the thirty drafts were done, and Jacqueline and I both agreed at the same time that the story was complete, we had advance reading copies made. I gave out the first ones to librarians and educators at the Texas Library Association conference in San Antonio in early 2014. John Schumacher and Colby Sharp shared their copies with Paul Hankins and with Donalyn Miller, who wrote in a Nerdy Book Club blog post about reading the galley on her way home from the convention:

As I read, a silver thread flowed out of Brown Girl Dreaming, and twined up my wrist to my chest — connecting Jackie’s family to me and making them part of me. Following Colby’s scribbled brackets around lines and folded page corners like messages for me to find, he was with me in the book, too. That thread connects me to Jackie now, but it also connects me to Colby, Jillian [Heise], and everyone who will ever read Brown Girl Dreaming.

I love that Jacqueline’s writing has the power to connect us. It reminds us of so many universal parts of growing up: competing with siblings, feeling content in the heart of your family, being confused by a million messages coming at you, struggling to make sense of the senseless, and ultimately finding the power of your own voice. Reading a memoir like Brown Girl Dreaming reminds us that each of us has a voice and needs to find it in our own time; that everyone’s story is important; that we become stronger by dreaming our dreams and sharing our stories; and that books have the power to make the world a better place.

And so I thank Jacqueline Woodson, as well as all the librarians and teachers and booksellers who have worked to get this book into the hands of so many readers. You are all changing the world.

Profile of 2015 Coretta Scott King Author Award winner Jacqueline Woodson. From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Read Jacqueline Woodson’s Coretta Scott King Author Award acceptance speech for Brown Girl Dreaming. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ala 2015.

Nancy Paulsen About Nancy Paulsen

Nancy Paulsen is president and publisher of Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

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