Mention Jacqueline Woodson—a former National Ambassador for Young People's Literature—and readers begin naming favorite titles: groundbreaking LGBTQ novels (From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun), stories of BIPOC histories and identities (After Tupac and D Foster), books adapted to TV (Miracle’s Boys), and the National Book Award–winning memoir in verse Brown Girl Dreaming. At a lunch-hour keynote on May 24, Woodson sat down with bookseller Miwa Messer, executive producer and host of the Barnes & Noble podcast Poured Over, to discuss her work.
“We’re here with Jacqueline Woodson, and we’ve run out of superlatives to describe her work—straight up, let’s not pretend,” Messer said, before reading an abbreviated list of Woodson’s accolades: a 2020 MacArthur Fellowship, an NAACP Image Award, and a 2023 E.B. White Award for achievement in children’s literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters,
Woodson doesn’t keep that glory all to herself. After winning the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2018, she established the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Baldwin for the Arts, a four-acre retreat center that to date has supported approximately 60 fellows. “I founded [BFTA] for artists of the global majority, visual artists, composers, writers who need to get away to create,” Woodson told Messer. “We pay for travel, we pay for their meals, we give them a place to stay, and hope they create great work.” BFTA, named in honor of James Baldwin, was inspired by MacDowell, the arts organization where Woodson herself experienced a transformative residency.
Woodson and Messer talked about the role of memory in Woodson’s books, the revision process, and the audience Woodson imagines when writing books like her forthcoming middle grade novel, Remember Us (Penguin/Paulsen, Oct.). “The story is inspired by me growing up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn in the ’70s and ’80s, when a lot of Bushwick was on fire,” Woodson said, referring to arson and outrage in the economically stressed neighborhood. She wanted “to take a critical look at that through the eyes of a young person, because when you're in that moment, it doesn't feel out of the ordinary. It’s just your life.”
Remember Us depicts Bushwick “through the gaze of someone who is as wise as I am now, but younger,” Woodson explained. “Young people are so wise. Even if they don't have the language yet, they are perceptive and introspective and thoughtful in this way that I try to bring to my characters.” She takes care to write characters with self-respect and confidence, who come from underserved communities but do not feel defined by lack.
“When I write, I’m very conscious of [my reader] seeing themselves in it,” Woodson said. “Is there something about how I write a character that might break that person’s spirit?” She wants to impress upon readers “that they’re not existing alone. Theirs isn’t an isolated experience.”
Warmly acknowledging her longtime editor, Nancy Paulsen, who was in the audience, Woodson explained her revision process. She reads everything aloud to hear characters’ voices, and revises scenes while “having faith [in] the picture I’m trying to paint on the page.” Her own memories and thorough research enable her to craft people and places, she said. “I think of it like a photograph that’s developing, and it becomes more clear [as] I go back into it.”
“Do you feel a responsibility to these kids?” Messer asked, referring to Woodson’s imagined readers and fictional characters alike. “Or are you just wanting to tell a story?”
“I feel a responsibility to my younger self, and by extension that’s a responsibility to all young people,” Woodson responded. “I’m conscious of the characters I’m putting on the page.”