Our Foundation, Our Springboard: The Trailblazing Work of Mildred D. Taylor and Jacqueline Woodson

Because Coretta Scott King Author Award winner Jacqueline Woodson and Children's Literature Legacy Award winner Mildred D. Taylor have been so recently profiled in these pages (see the May/June 2019 and July/August 2020 issues), we decided instead to offer this year's Margaret A. Edwards Award winner Kekla Magoon space to reflect on these two seminal authors together. More on Woodson and Taylor can be found at hbook.com/jacqueline-woodson-articles and hbook.com/mildred-taylor. Woodson's CSK speech, not ready in time for publication in our pages, will be posted by ALA and linked from hbook.com after the speech is delivered on June 27. Congratulations to all three great writers! ROGER SUTTON

This January, watching the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards announcement, I cheered when they revealed ­Jacqueline Woodson as winner of the 2021 Coretta Scott King Author Award, for Before the Ever After, and Mildred D. Taylor as winner of the 2021 Children’s Literature Legacy Award, for her lifetime of contribution to the field. Neither of these recognitions surprised me in the least, as my shelves are full of their work and I know they are beyond deserving of these accolades.

I’ve looked up to Ms. Taylor and Ms. Woodson forever, long before becoming a writer was even on my horizon. A rickety, spinning rack of paperbacks in my middle-school English classroom brought Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry into my hands for the first time. Some years later, Woodson’s If You Come Softly was the first book I read that featured an interracial relationship between teens, something that interested me as a biracial girl living in a predominantly white community. When you look at Taylor’s or Woodson’s individual bodies of work, they are remarkable and groundbreaking. Taken together, they form a powerful foundation that I and all the Black writers working today are fortunate enough to stand on. So, what has their work given to us: to readers; to the field of children’s literature; to writers like me, who have spent our careers striving to follow in their footsteps?

Quite simply, they bring Blackness to life on the page. And as such, the power of their work cannot be overstated. It is simple to say this truth here and now, but far less simple to deliver it with the beauty and precision that these authors employ in their craft. They artfully capture the moments, small and large, that make us who we are. Contemplating the impact of their writing, three particular facets of their work come to mind.

Echoes of Oral Tradition

Black stories predate the written word. Long ago, people gathered around the fire to listen to stories told aloud, shared, and preserved within the collective memory of a people. And then, for decades in this country, Black people were not allowed to learn to read or write. Our stories continued to be told in whispers around campfires, relayed in song, held in memory, stitched into the lines of our quilts, and hidden in our art.

Taylor’s life’s work has been to capture, preserve, and perhaps transform the oral narratives passed down by her family. In a 2008 interview for The Brown Bookshelf blog she said,

I was blessed to come from a family of storytellers…stories of family history were handed down from generation to generation, and as a child I was inspired to pass these stories on. I was, however, a quiet child and knew that I could not carry on the great oral tradition of the storytellers who were dramatists as well as historians, but I believed I could write down the stories.

Woodson, through poetry and poetic prose, creates books that seem to speak aloud. She has referred to our Black ancestors as “an almost silenced people,” and she views her work as a way of giving them voice. There is power in taking what has long been whispered and rendering it into print. It takes extreme skill to both honor that oral history and break us out of it.

Snapshots of Everyday Blackness

Black stories are rife with challenge, but also rich with hope, love, laughter, and connection. Taylor and Woodson transcend pervasive media images of Black trauma by taking us beneath the surface, inside the Black bodies that are so often dehumanized, to reveal the heart of our humanity. Taylor’s Logan family saga begins long before the civil rights movement. It is a decades-long story of struggle and survival against the backdrop of segregation — through most of these books, we are still waiting for the comforting resolution of equality, which feels far off, and is so often presented too neatly in literature. Woodson’s contemporary works (Miracle’s Boys; Peace, Locomotion; Harbor Me, et al.) show this, too — the weight still carried by Black communities into this new century. We have yet to see true equality, but we live our lives through the injustice anyway. All of the authors’ books sing out a deep truth: we will never forget we are Black, but we are defined by so much more than the color of our skin. We cherish our brown skin. We grieve it and we smooth it in gratitude by turns.

­Importance of Family and Intergenerational Narratives

In her TED Talk “What Reading Slowly Taught Me About Writing,” Woodson said, “Sometimes we read to understand the future. Sometimes we read to understand the past. We read to get lost, to forget the hard times we’re living in, and we read to remember those who came before us, who lived through something harder. I write for those same reasons.” Like Taylor, Woodson seeks to capture a powerful truth about herself in relation to her lineage. Show Way, a picture book about her ancestors, carries readers through American history in a way that resonates beyond one family. Brown Girl ­Dreaming, her middle-grade verse memoir, explores her own childhood in beautiful depth. The concept carries to her fiction: Hush imagines a family starting over, while Before the Ever After portrays one grappling with a different kind of ending. These books, like Taylor’s series, explore identity and family and give us grounding in the sense of a Black home, in a variety of meanings of the word, by showing how we fight to preserve our home and family, how lost we feel when disconnected from them, and how we rediscover and redefine that connection time and again.

Past, Present, Future

When Taylor won the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, the ALA press release noted that Woodson (herself a past winner) has said she is a writer because she read Taylor’s books. In turn, I am a writer because I read Taylor’s and Woodson’s books. We represent three generations of Black women writing our truths, crafting our stories, making our observations about the world as it was, is, and could be. Taylor’s work is firmly centered in the past; it is our foundation. Woodson has shined a light on myriad aspects of contemporary Black life. In my own work, and that of many Black writers today, you’ll find the historical, the contemporary, and more, as we tiptoe toward our speculative future, ­daring to reframe what is past and imagine what’s to come. In thinking about our work together, I feel emboldened by their powerful voices; I feel their hands pressing us forward into the unknown. I get chills, imagining the next generation, young women writers sitting in classrooms, curled into armchairs, perusing library shelves, finding our work and preparing the words that will carry us into something we can’t yet imagine.

I offer the framing of past, present, and future because it gives me strength to consider myself part of this lineage, but please understand — this is not static. We are not locked into these roles — we are dynamic. ­Woodson’s contemporary young adult oeuvre is complemented by historical titles such as Show Way and Brown Girl Dreaming, as well as her adult books, which delve into the richness of Black history as it relates to us today. Woodson understands that we have to reckon with the past to illuminate the present. In the aforementioned Brown Bookshelf interview, Taylor spoke of a project she yet envisioned: “One last book I would like to write is about life as it is today for an African American who has supposedly ‘achieved’ the American dream.” Our narratives of the past are a springboard to grappling with our present, and there is much to be illuminated about the lives we’re living now.

For a long time in publishing, we were only allowed to consider Blackness in relation to the past. Taylor’s work was groundbreaking because it cut through the distancing noise of our history books to bring us close to the struggles of one family, to let us feel that past, to allow us to walk the land alongside the Logans and imbue us with their hope. ­Woodson’s work was groundbreaking because it brought us to the present, into the homes, lives, and hearts of young Black people living through ordinary days, juggling fear, joy, loss, laughter, and love in ways that people do. These two authors remain groundbreaking today because we will never stop needing those lessons, those glimpses into what it means to live a Black life, day by day.

We’re in a moment now when teachers, scholars, and readers are more eager than ever to think outside the box history would press us into. There has always been Black speculative fiction, you might say? Well, yes. We have fought for our stories in every form and genre, always. We are always flying in the face of the establishment to have our voices heard. The difference is, now we have new opportunities to make all our narratives of Blackness — past, present, and future — mainstream. The trailblazing work of writers like Ms. ­Taylor and Ms. Woodson makes possible the work of all the Black writers coming up today. We celebrate these women’s words, we grasp their torches and run alongside them, prepared to continue the journey when they have tired.

From the July/August 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2021.

Single copies of this special issue are available for $15.00 including postage and may be ordered from:

Kristy South
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Kekla Magoon
Kekla Magoon

Kekla Magoon is the winner of the 2019 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction and Poetry for The Season of Styx Malone (Lamb/Random). Her YA novels include The Rock and the River (Simon), How It Went Down (Holt), X: A Novel (with Ilyasah Shabazz; Candlewick), and the Robyn Hoodlum Adventures series (Bloomsbury). She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now serves on the faculty.

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