To say it has been a big year for National Book Award–winning author Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming) would be an understatement. To start with, Woodson was named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for 2018–2019. Woodson takes her new role very seriously. In fact, she brings to her ambassadorship a unique equation that she coined: Reading = Hope x Change. To Woodson, the equation represents “everything. We read,” Woodson says. “We find hope in what we read, and that reading and hope changes us.”

This year, Woodson is also publishing two new books: The Day You Begin, a picture book illustrated by Rafael López, and Harbor Me, a middle grade novel. Woodson garnered inspiration for The Day You Begin from a passage in Brown Girl Dreaming in which she writes about her great-great-grandfather’s experience of being the only child of color among white students. She wanted to expand that idea in The Day You Begin: “For each of us, there comes the point where we enter a space and feel on the outside of it. For the very young, it often happens the first time they enter a classroom.” Woodson’s aim in writing the story was to show characters who walk into an unfamiliar space and emerge “more thoughtful, happier, more relaxed.”

Despite their different formats and audiences, Woodson’s picture book and novel have thematic similarities. In Harbor Me, Woodson writes about a group of students who gather to openly communicate with one another about their lives without the presence of adults. “I think, too often, we don’t have these safe spaces where we can fully be ourselves,” Woodson says. “I think the question of whether we adequately listen to what youth have to say is one that every adult should ask themselves.”

Given today’s climate of political and social discord, Woodson’s focus in her work on communication and understanding is timely. Yet, Woodson doesn’t intentionally infuse her stories with allusions to current events. “I try to keep my head down while I’m writing,” Woodson says. “For Harbor Me, one may think it feels very ‘current,’ but I’m writing about things that have been happening for decades. For The Day You Begin—lifetimes. So the sadness is that so much hasn’t changed. But I do a lot of self-care around myself and my writing.”