Even though Jacqueline Woodson’s latest release, Brown Girl Dreaming (Penguin/Paulsen, Aug.), is set during the 1960s and ’70s, its themes are still relevant today, especially after a controversy erupted last month over the lack of diversity in BookCon’s initial lineup of authors. “The civil rights movement was about access to public space. We had to fight for public space,” she says. “BookCon is about private space. It’s about commerce, about business, about the fact that people believe books by [African-Americans and people of color] won’t sell or won’t be of interest to people.”
Brown Girl Dreaming, she points out, “is about the civil rights movement and my coming-of-age and understanding how powerful our voices are in the world. And then to turn around and see how much more we have to do.” Thus, Woodson is putting her words into action by pulling triple duty at BEA: she is autographing ARCs of Brown Girl Dreaming today, 2–3 p.m., at Table 18 in the Autographing Area; participating in the Tea with Children’s Authors this afternoon; and returning to Javits tomorrow to take part in a BookCon panel discussion on the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign.
“Diversity is about all of us, and about us having to figure out how to walk through this world together,” Woodson says. “It blows my mind that this dialogue continues to happen.”
Woodson, 51, has written 10 picture books, seven middle-grade novels, and 10 YA novels that all contain elements of her childhood experiences, yet Brown Girl Dreaming is her first official foray into autobiography. She notes also that while her 1995 novel, Autobiography of a Family Photo, is “emotionally autobiographical,” much of it was fiction. She adds that her new book marks “the first time I’ve looked back on my life, year by year, and person by person.” Brown Girl Dreaming explores Woodson’s childhood and youth, when she split her time between Brooklyn and South Carolina during the civil rights era, while the South was still grappling with the aftermath of Jim Crow. She says that she lived in both places, but felt as if she didn’t belong in either.
While Brown Girl Dreaming was initially sparked by Woodson’s desire to explain her origins as a writer, it was also prompted by a period of introspection that followed the deaths of her mother and grandmother. “I realized,” Woodson says, “if I didn’t start talking to my relatives, asking questions, thinking back to my own beginnings, there would come a time when those people wouldn’t be around to help me look back and remember.”
Woodson wrote this memoir in a poetry format, she says, because she wanted to capture the essence of those “small moments” of her childhood that, in retrospect, loom so large. “That’s the way memories happen,” she observes, “in those small moments. It’s more lyrical and wondrous than a straight narrative.”