A Profile of Children's Literature Legacy Award Winner Jacqueline Woodson

I’ve known Jacqueline Woodson for years, but even before we met, when I read Last Summer with Maizon (1990), Jackie’s first book, I knew a special writer had arrived on the children’s literature scene. Although the full extent of the depth and breadth of her talent may not have been clear, what was apparent from that first book was her commitment to telling the stories of young people (mostly, but not exclusively, African Americans). And Jackie has managed to be almost prescient in the areas that would become major themes in children’s and teen fiction. As the press release announcing her as the winner of the 2018 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (since renamed the Children’s Literature Legacy Award) states:

If children’s literature today addresses themes of racism, sexuality, and class; if previously invisible characters have come to the fore; if different voices are now heard; if more children see themselves and others in books, look to Jacqueline Woodson as a prime-mover. For over 25 years, in elegant poetry and prose, she has courageously explored issues once ignored and nurtured her readers’ self-esteem and empathy.

Jacqueline Woodson was born in Ohio and raised and educated in Greenville, South Carolina, and Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from college with a BA in English and now writes full-time in Brooklyn, where she lives with her family. Writing with poetic simplicity, she has garnered much critical acclaim and many honors for her work, including — just this year! — the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the appointment as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Given the discussion around the decision to change the name of the Wilder Award and ALSC’s efforts to align award names with stated values of “equity, diversity, and inclusion,” how fitting that this year one of the most consistent and outspoken voices for those values is being honored for a body of work that uplifts and centers those who have been too long marginalized.

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Jackie’s first recognition in the world of children’s books was a Coretta Scott King Author Honor for I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This (1994), a book that remains one of my personal favorites. Here readers were introduced to middle-class African American girl Marie, daughter of a professor, who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Lena, who is poor, white, and from the wrong side of the tracks. In this powerful story, two girls discover a connection that crosses race and class. The following year, Jackie was again recognized with a Coretta Scott King Author Honor for From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun (1995), the story of a thirteen-year-old African American young man whose world turns upside down when his mother, EC, a law school student, brings home a new friend, a white lawyer named Kristin. His mother tells him she is gay and in love with Kristin. Eventually, the strong bond between Melanin and EC reminds the boy of his love for his mother and helps him accept Kristin in their lives.

The plot of Hush (2002), the first Woodson title to be named a National Book Award finalist, sounds like it could have been ripped from today’s headlines. When Toswiah’s police-officer father witnesses the shooting of an innocent black teen by two of his fellow officers, he is unable to keep silent and receives death threats. The entire family must enter the witness protection program, be relocated, and assume new identities. Of course, in Jackie’s hands, this story is more than a headline. Toswiah and her family are depicted as fully realized, struggling to make sense of their circumstances as they reach for healing and reconciliation. Those two themes — healing and reconciliation — are also handled gracefully in Miracle’s Boys (2000). Here in Baltimore we loved that book so much that it was selected as the first book published for young people to be named as “Baltimore’s Book,” where it served as a catalyst for book discussions and library programs throughout the city. It was also made into a mini-series for Nickelodeon, with Spike Lee as one of the directors.

Locomotion (2003) is a remarkable exploration of form, a novel in verse that explores loss and the power of poetry to heal. Protagonist Lonnie’s story continues in the sequel, Peace, Locomotion (2009), but this time in letters that reflect his growth and determination to hold on to some part of the family he lost.

It felt so right that the first of Jackie’s Newbery Honors was for her picture book Show Way (2005), illustrated by Hudson Talbott, a story that celebrates Jackie’s own unique family history and rewards readers with a lyrical reminder of the resilience of our foremothers. She had already graced us with so many fictional stories in which young people and families drew upon strength to persevere. Here we could see some of Jackie’s own reservoir of resilience in this intimate family portrait. And with her novels Feathers (2007) and After Tupac and D Foster (2008) we saw rare back-to-back Newbery Honor recognition. What stands out for me in both of these works is the clarity of voice from both Frannie in Feathers and the unnamed narrator in After Tupac and D Foster.

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Jackie’s work is never just about an issue; rather, readers will always gain important insight into who we are as human beings, especially in relationship to one another. We see this in her picture books as well as in her fiction. In The Other Side (2001), E. B. Lewis’s exquisite watercolor paintings accompany a deceptively simple story of two girls, one white and one black, reaching across barriers. Coming On Home Soon (2004), about a girl awaiting her mother’s return from railroad work during World War II, brims with such powerful emotion that it garnered a Caldecott Honor for Lewis. Years before mass incarceration became a prominent topic for societal discussion, Jackie humanized the statistics with Visiting Day (2002), in which a girl and her grandmother visit the child’s father in prison. James E. Ransome’s warm illustrations support this sensitive narrative of a family connecting with each other during a difficult time. Jackie’s lyrical and memorable Each Kindness (2012), again with E. B. Lewis’s evocative illustrations, shows the reality of what it means to hurt another, but also the path forward to becoming a better person.

And speaking of powerful, lyrical, and memorable, we come to Jackie’s memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), probably one of the most universally admired and decorated children’s book in recent years. There’s not room to list all its accolades, but they include: the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature; the 2015 Coretta Scott King Author Award; and 2015 Newbery, Sibert, and Boston Globe–Horn Book Award honors. Once again, Jackie uses poetry to provide readers an experience so rich and intimate that it reaches across categories. Here we are invited to explore the making of a writer and understand those things that unleash the possibilities in us all. Horn Book reviewer Martha V. Parravano said it best: “The poetry here sings: specific, lyrical, and full of imagery. . . An extraordinary — indeed brilliant — portrait of a writer as a young girl.”

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It has truly been remarkable to have had a front-row seat for the unfolding of this incredible career, whether it was listening to an early reading from what would become Maizon at Blue Hill (1992) at one of Jackie’s first author visits or witnessing an audience so moved by her reading of Show Way that the applause began before she could finish. Just over a year ago, Jackie came back to Baltimore, this time as the featured speaker for the Pratt Library’s annual Booklovers’ Breakfast. Although she was there to discuss her National Book Award–finalist adult novel, Another Brooklyn, my role as moderator allowed me to ask about her writing for young people, and her engaging and astute remarks convinced many in that packed ballroom to discover the power of her writing for all ages.

When I interviewed Jackie in 2006 for School Library Journal, we spoke about the controversy around If You Come Softly (1998), a novel that includes the shooting death of an African American teen, and the way the book was embraced by young people while meeting resistance from adults. All those many years ago, Jackie understood what some adults are finally seeing in today’s current youth activism: all young people need adults to see them and their world with compassion and understanding — and respect. She continues to be a steadfast advocate for young people, “loving them up” and telling their stories with the kind of honesty and grace that results in indefatigable hope — you know, that “thing with feathers.”

From the September/October 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Read Jacqueline Woodson's 2018 Children's Literature Legacy Award acceptance speech here.

Deborah Taylor

Deborah Taylor

Deborah Taylor retired from the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland. She has chaired and served on many ALA committees and on the National Book Awards jury for young people’s literature. She was named the 2015 recipient of the Coretta Scott King/Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. She currently serves as chair of the Ezra Jack Keats Awards Committee.

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