The third time’s a charm for Jacqueline Woodson, whose memoir written in verse about her 1960s-era childhood, Brown Girl Dreaming (Penguin/Paulsen) won the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature last week, her first win; she’s been a finalist twice before. “I love how much love there is in the world of young adult and children's literature,” said Woodson after receiving the award from presenter Sharon Draper. Some of that love rubbed off on We Need Diverse Books, the fledgling nonprofit organization that advocates making multicultural books and their authors more accessible to young readers. The organization has received more than $200,000 in donations since November 21, with many contributors citing #CelebrateJackie when making their pledges.
You urged your audience during your NBA acceptance speech to talk to elders, and hear their stories – as you did for Brown Girl Dreaming, which is as much about your family’s history as it is about your childhood. Are there any stories you heard from family members that contradicted your own memories? If so, how did you reconcile different recollections of a shared past?
I always thought my dad was the youngest in the family – I didn’t know he was the oldest. I don’t remember other stories that contradicted my memories. When I started writing, so much came back to me and when I started interviewing relatives, so much more was learned.
You have been nominated for the National Book Award three times; according to Sharon Draper, the chair of the Young People’s Award committee, the decision made this year by the awards committee was unanimous. What did you think in the moments between Draper’s disclosure that this year’s winner had been a unanimous choice by the committee and her saying your name?
All I could think was “wow.” Then I thought – “Wow!!” Brown Girl Dreaming was a book I had a lot of doubts about – mainly – would this story be meaningful to anyone besides me. My editor, Nancy Paulsen, kept assuring me but there were moments when I was in a really sad place with the story for so many reasons. It wasn’t an easy book to write – emotionally, physically, or creatively. But what book is, I guess. Still, I think the needing to reach so far back to understand so much about people who were so close to me and now mostly gone, brought up a lot of emotion for me. When Sharon said “unanimous,” for the first time in my life, I cried in a way I had not before – spontaneously, and with both immense joy and immense sadness for the people I loved who had not lived to hear her say it and understand how amazing they were/are.
Of the five finalists in the Young People’s Literature category, three of the books deal with race and the struggle for civil rights in the mid-20th century. Why are such books resonating with readers?
Readers are hungry to have their stories in the world, to see mirrors of themselves if the stories are about people like them and to have windows if the stories are about people who have been historically absent in literature. People want to know and understand each other across lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability. Stories that finally reflect (and are well written) can’t do anything other than resonate.
What do you hope will come about, in the industry and beyond, in the wake of the controversy over Daniel Handler’s comments at the National Book Awards ceremony?
At this moment, I am just hoping every single interview I do about my winning the National Book Award for Brown Girl Dreaming doesn’t feel like it needs to bring this up with me.