- An Interview with Jacqueline Woodson:Black Childhood, Telling the Truth, and Writing as Activism
Jacqueline Woodson is one of the most celebrated and prolific writers in the United States. Since beginning her writing career in 1990, she has published over thirty novels, picturebooks, and verse narratives for young readers and adults, receiving numerous prestigious awards. The following interview sheds light on how Woodson sees her role as a contemporary author. It also focuses on the significance of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices movements to Woodson as a writer and her views on telling the truth about Black childhood as activism.
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On your website, you describe your poetry as coming in a variety of containers and being a vehicle for conveying difficult subject matter (Brown Girl Dreaming is "poetry as memoir," Show Way is "poetry as history," Each Kindness is "poetry as empathy," etc.). What, in your view, is the role of poetry in the field of children's and adolescent literature?
The main thing is that poetry is accessible. It can cater to a vast amount of ability. A person at the beginning stages of literacy can have a comprehension, as can someone who is a more advanced reader. Poetry is easier to deconstruct when you look at a picturebook: readers read it line by line, and each line reveals something visual for them. Poetry is very visual. When you look at someone who is learning how to write, it's the same thing; it's that slow reveal in a very accessible form. When you look at it in terms of memoir, it's the way memories come to us. Memories come to us in this very kind of cryptic way that's very visual but also encased in small moments that feel, to me, very poetic. I think that it can be very scary for people. I know when I was younger, I was nervous about poetry because it felt like a language I wasn't meant to understand, [End Page 11] because I wasn't a "poet." But I think in terms of a language that works, it really can speak to us at every age of our being and every ability of our literacy.
How do you see your role as a poet for young readers now?
Having not seen myself as a poet for so long—yet still thinking of myself as a writer with poetic sensibilities—I feel like we can connect more because I think a lot of young people don't see themselves as poets or don't always understand what it means to be a poet, even as the language changes. You look at something like texting and that is very poetic, or you look at the way that young people play with language in their speaking or in their TikToks. There are all these ways in which poetry is very resonant. Kids aren't recognizing it as that; they are sometimes thinking about it as that thing over there. Coming to poetry in a similar manner, it is easier for me to talk to young people, and through my own writing, to kind of mirror what it means that poetry is everywhere.
In Brown Girl Dreaming, your poems "learning from langston" and "birch tree poem" explore how writers whom you read as a young person, such as Langston Hughes and Robert Frost, influenced your coming of age as a writer. Can you talk about the importance of influence in your work today?
Well, definitely some of the writers you mentioned are people I return to often and especially Nikki Giovanni, Nikky Finney, Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, Countee Cullen, all of the people of the Harlem Renaissance, and Pablo Neruda. I think that writing and learning are eternal. We continue to learn until we are not here anymore. As a writer I am always trying to go deeper and learn more, not only about craft, but about my own ability as a writer. Visiting those texts and reading the words of other writers really helps me get there—helps me understand at a deeper level what I am trying to say and...