Jacqueline Woodson, 49, stood in front of the seated crowd of Oak Bluffs School eighth graders last Friday morning, holding a copy of her 2005 young adult novel, Behind You. The book was a mere prop, though. Ms. Woodson never glanced at its pages as she pulled the book’s first vignette from memory.
You do not die. Your soul steps out of your body, shakes itself hard because it’s been carrying the weight of your heavy skin for fifteen years.
She continued to speak aloud from the point of view of Jeremiah, an African-American boy killed by police in a case of mistaken identity, a character who also appears in her young adult novel If You Come Softly. Ms. Woodson explained to the group that she always reads her own words aloud to make sure they have the right sort of sound to them.
When she finished the piece, the eighth graders burst into applause, a few of them looking around at their friends, wide-eyed and clearly impressed.
For the remainder of their class period, the eighth-graders had the chance to ask the Coretta Scott King award-winner (Miracle’s Boys) and three-time Newbury Honor author (After Tupac and D Foster, Feathers, and Show Way) questions about her books and her writing process. There was no shortage of hands.
Which of her books was her favorite? What did she do when she wasn’t writing?
She didn’t have a favorite, but was usually most excited about her newest books — in this case the picture book Each Kindness. She played basketball, ran, sewed and spent a lot of time driving her children to various activities.
“I procrastinate a lot,” Ms. Woodson said. “I go on Facebook, which is bad.”
“Same!” shouted one eighth-grader.
Why, asked a student named Dylan, did she write so deeplyâ?
“I can’t imagine [otherwise],” Ms. Woodson said, adding that she would likely be embarrassed if she tried to write a story that skimmed only the surface of an issue. She writes about topics she cares about, tackling racial themes, gay and lesbian relationships, foster care, parental drug abuse and class differences. Few of her characters are based on real people, but the cool thing about being a writer, she explained, is that you can make things up. She used the example of Jeremiah from Behind You. Ms. Woodson is not a boy, and hasn’t “been dead yet,” but she can create characters and situations based on her own emotions.
“We all have these emotions we can tap into when we’re writing,” she said, adding that she wrote Behind You as a response to 9/11’s aftermath, relying on her feelings of loss and healing as she created the book.
Ms. Woodson knew she wanted to be a writer when she was seven. “I would just write all the time,” she said. This wasn’t a traditional path for her family and they encouraged her to pursue a career that was more financially stable. But she couldn’t see herself ever doing anything else.
“There’s kind of no excuse to not do the thing you want to do and love to do,” she said during a discussion of After Tupac and D Foster, one of her Newbury Honor books. Ms. Woodson cited the rapper Tupac as an inspiration in this regard. Even when jailed, he produced his music and created art.
A student asked her if she thought Tupac was really dead.
“Yes,” she said. “I call him our black Elvis.”
Ms. Woodson next spoke to the school’s first, second and third-graders, focusing on her picture books, and the process of creating one.
“Here’s the really cool thing,” she said. “With a picture book, you don’t even have to read the words to know the story.”
She explained that when working with illustrator E.B. Lewis she couldn’t talk to him at all while he was creating the book’s watercolor paintings. But when she worked with Hudson Talbott on Show Way, the two collaborated extensively because the book was a family history and Ms. Woodson wanted to make sure the representations were just right.
Ms. Woodson picked up a copy of The Other Side and read it aloud to the students. Again, as with the eighth-graders, she never looked at its pages.
That summer the fence that stretched through our town seemed bigger. We lived in a house on one side of it. White people lived on the other. And Mama said “Don’t climb over that fence when you play.” She said it wasn’t safe.
Ms. Woodson also read aloud from the first part of Show Way, and talked about writing Pecan Pie Baby, a book about a girl who becomes a big sister.
Why, asked one girl, are there so many books with black people?
Ms. Woodson explained that one of the first rules of writing is to write what you know. So a lot of her books, especially her picture books, featured black girls. When Ms. Woodson was a child herself, she said, there weren’t many books with pictures of girls who looked like her.
A girl named Sophia stood and asked about the ending of Each Kindness, in which the narrator, in a twist from the usual kids’ book formula, never gets a chance for redemption after being mean to a classmate.
“Sometimes we don’t get a second chance,” Ms. Woodson said. “[The ending] leaves you thinking about what she would have done.”
As she wrote the book, she said, she remembered times in her own life when she had been kind — and not kind.
“A lot of [my writing] is fiction,” she explained. “And there’s some of me in every single book I write.”
One of the final questions the elementary-schoolers asked her wasn’t a question at all.
“I just thought that was really good,” the boy said. “You memorizing the books.”
Lynn Van Auken, the head librarian at the Oak Bluff school said that having Ms. Woodson come speak at the school was one of her dreams as a librarian. She worked to arrange a visit after seeing Ms. Woodson give a talk at Simmons College last year.
“We’ve had authors [speak] before, but she’s surely the most well-renowned one we’ve had,”
The visit was paid for with money raised from the school’s annual book fair, and the library made arrangements to provide copies of Ms. Woodson’s newest picture book, Each Kindness, to the younger students at a reduced cost.
“I lost track of how many kids [ordered] copies,” Ms. Van Auken said.