"My sister taught me how to write my name when I was about three. I remember writing my whole name: Jacqueline Amanda Woodson." Woodson sits comfortably in an overstuffed chair in the sunny front room of her brownstone apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. "I just loved the power of that," she continues, "of being able to put a letter on the page and that letter meaning something. It was the physical act of writing for me that happened first. Not so much telling stories but actually having the tools with which to create a landscape of words."
All of Woodson's characters inhabit a detailed physical landscape, whether it be Lena's single-story shack with its cracked windows and peeling paint in I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This (Delacorte, 1994) or the claustrophobic apartment of the three motherless brothers in the Coretta Scott King Award-winning Miracle's Boys (Putnam, 2000). The author draws clear boundaries around these worlds, often defined by society, and her characters break through them--with exhilarating results. Sometimes it's a happy outcome, such as when the fence that separates Clover from her white neighbor becomes a rendezvous point in The Other Side (Putnam, 2001), sometimes tragic, as when Miah crosses from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, into Ellie's Upper West Side neighborhood in If You Come Softly (Putnam, 1998).
In Hush , published last month by Putnam, Woodson zeroes in on a cop who breaks the Blue Wall of Silence. Toswiah and her family must leave their Denver home and change their names after her father testifies against two fellow cops--both white--who shoot and kill an innocent African-American teenager. Toswiah transforms from a well-adjusted 12-year-old into the ultimate outsider, a recurrent theme in Woodson's novels.
"Growing up I always felt there's a way in which you belong--I definitely had my clique of girls, and I was a cheerleader and dated a basketball player--but it always felt like I was outside watching that and never quite belonging," Woodson recalls. "As a writer, that's where my gaze starts."
Wearing a roomy, violet sweatshirt and loose-fitting golden-hued pants, Woodson exudes the quiet confidence of one who loves her life's work. At 5'10", she carries her pregnancy gracefully (her due date is February 20). Mouse, the German Shepherd she and her girlfriend discovered on the street one day, naps contentedly on the floor. The adjoining room, in purple tones of twilight replete with stars and moon, awaits the birth of her daughter (to be named Toshi Georgianna, for her godmother-to-be, Toshi Seeger, and Woodson's grandmother, Georgianna).
In a nook of the large, open kitchen is the author's desk, a transparent glass top that reveals the hardwood floor below. There sits a picture of Woodson's grandfather, the only African-American face in his high school class. A quartet of cameos shows the girlhood pictures of Woodson and her partner. The author's manner and her surroundings convey a serene sense of belonging, and the critical acclaim and many awards accorded her 15 children's books have won Woodson a spot as a literary insider. Yet her early years were a time of flux.
From 1968 to 1973, Woodson split her time between South Carolina and Brooklyn, until her grandmother settled in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. "I feel so grateful to have had both worlds," she says. "The South was so lush and so slow-moving and so much about community. The city was thriving and fast-moving and electric. Brooklyn was so much more diverse: on the block where I grew up, there were German people, people from the Dominican Republic, people from Puerto Rico, African-Americans from the South, Caribbean-Americans, Asians."
Her interest in reading blossomed as quickly as her interest in writing. Yet despite the availability of children's literature, few books reflected her own experience. "You had to search for the literature for people of color by people of color," Woodson says. But then as an adolescent she discovered James Baldwin, Zeely by Virginia Hamilton, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Sula, and the work of Rosa Guy. "I think Baldwin was such a big influence because he was writing about people in the city. I think he came closest to who I was, growing up."
She credits her favorite authors as her best teachers. "The books that I loved I read again and again and again," she says. "Every time you revisit a book you get something else out of it. The more familiar I got with them, the more accessible the act of writing was." Woodson's high school English teacher was also influential: "Mr. Miller said, 'When you choose a career, choose something that you feel passionate about, because you're going to be doing it for the rest of your life.' That moment it hit me that [writing] was the thing I loved doing more than anything."
But in college she got sidetracked. As an English major with the goal of becoming a teacher, she saw writing as a hobby. By her junior year in college, Woodson had begun writing Last Summer with Maizon (Delacorte, 1990). But then she came to a make-or-break point. "You're writing, you're coasting, and you're thinking, 'This is the best thing I've ever written, and it's coming so easily, and these characters are so great.' You put it aside for whatever reason, and you open it up a week later and the characters have turned to cardboard and the book has completely fallen apart," she says. "That's the moment of truth for every writer: Can I go on from here and make this book into something? I think it separates the writers from the nonwriters. And I think it's the reason a lot of people have that unfinished manuscript around the house, that albatross."
Woodson put the manuscript away and, after graduating from Adelphi University, went to work for Kirchoff/Wohlberg, a children's packaging company. While helping to write the California standardized reading tests, she used a section of Maizon. Liza Pulitzer-Voges, the children's book agent at Kirchoff, liked what she read, asked to see the rest of the manuscript and sent it out. One editor kept the manuscript for seven months and wrote back a three-page letter of suggestions for revisions, but Woodson didn't want to work with her because she had kept the manuscript so long.
So she enrolled in Bunny Gable's children's book writing class at the New School. Bebe Willoughby, then an editor at Delacorte, was there the night that Gable read from Last Summer with Maizon, and told Woodson to ask Pulitzer-Voges to send it to Delacorte. Willoughby bought Maizon but ended up leaving the company. Soon after, Wendy Lamb picked up the book, "and the rest is history," Woodson says.
"She was the editor for my first six books," Woodson says. "I feel like I owe so much to Wendy because I had this idea of what the children's book world was, even though I'd read Rosa Guy, and all these books that were not happily-ever-after stories. But I had this idea that there were certain things you couldn't say. And Wendy said, basically, 'Nothing you can do is wrong.' "
Woodson also credits Lamb with showing her the ropes. "Wendy was a pretty hands-on editor, which I so needed at the time. I needed someone to walk me through the manuscript. She really helped me hone in and shape it and give it such clarity. She would say, 'One day you won't need me to do this.' "
After publishing five children's books, Woodson published her first adult novel, Autobiography of a Family Photo (Dutton, 1994), and Charlotte Sheedy, who negotiated the deal, became Woodson's agent for both her adult and children's books. In February 1996, Sheedy negotiated an unprecedented deal: on no material, Woodson signed a contract with Putnam, for four young adult novels and one picture book. "It was scary," the author recalls. "I didn't realize the impact it would have on me. Even though I was writing two and three books a year, all of a sudden I was like, 'Wait a second, now someone is expecting me to write one book a year.' What I had to do is make believe it never happened."
Woodson is happy with Nancy Paulsen, her editor at Putnam, and appreciates her approach: "As I've grown older, my needs have changed as a writer. She's a lot less hands-on." Still, the author admits, "Even now, I feel like I live from book to book. Moving on to the next one is starting from scratch."
Pushing the Envelope
With each book, Woodson has taken a risk--confronting issues of race, class, teenage pregnancy and interracial and gay relationships--and her sympathetic characters make the big questions more accessible for teens to examine. For instance, Melanin Sun reacts defiantly in From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun (Scholastic/Blue Sky, 1995), when his mother tells him she is gay, before he can accept it. In The House You Pass on the Way (Delacorte, 1997), the exchange between Trout and Staggerlee about their awakening feelings of sexuality is gentle and open-ended. When Trout suggests Staggerlee is gay, Staggerlee replies, "It sounds so final. I mean--we're only fourteen."
Woodson also pushes the boundaries for herself as an artist with each book. "Take Miracle's Boys, for example. I had written Melanin Sun, which is the first time I wrote from the point of view of a guy, and then I wrote If You Come Softly, which was from the points of view of a girl and a guy, and then I wanted to see if I could write a book that didn't have any women in it [Miracle's Boys]." The book she is currently working on for Putnam, tentatively titled Locomotion, is narrated by an 11-year-old boy and is written entirely in poetry.
Although Woodson says people pigeonhole her writing as "issue-related" or "edgy," for her the books address universal questions. "The questions that arise in the text were questions that arose for me [as a young adult]. Why is there this fear of the other? What is this lesson my parents are trying to teach me about stay with your own, or don't stay with your own?" She cites Lena in I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This : " 'We all just people here.' Why can't we just be people here?" These are everyday questions for Woodson. "My grandparents were wealthy, my mom was not. I would walk into these worlds of privilege and then walk back into this other world. My little brother is biracial. So race and economic class and sexuality--these were always issues that were a part of my life. The idea of writing stories that didn't deal with them just seemed so unrealistic and not true."
Her books may not provide easy answers, but they do convey Woodson's own optimism. "The writing that I have found to be most false is the writing that doesn't offer hope," she says. "What comes to mind, of course, is Sounder. I hate that book. There's this way in which that book is so bleak and so hopeless. When you look at A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, they were dirt poor, and there were these moments of hope and sheer beauty. If you love the people you create, you can see the hope there."
Her commitment to young people extends beyond her readers to budding writers. Each year she teaches teens at the National Book Foundation's summer writing camp and co-edits an anthology of their work. Woodson says, "It's so rewarding for me as a writer to know that there are these young voices who have something to say, whose stories are coming from different cultures and whose voices have historically been silenced because they're coming from poor communities. The fact that these words are going to be given to the world in some way, shape or form is thrilling."
Even as Woodson's books explore the very issues that tear families and society apart, the characters convey a strength and a conviction that they will come out on top. "Life and people and situations are just so complicated. For me it's about doing that work of going deeper into the character and into the story, not so much to find that hope but to reveal it."
Woodson's neighborhood and surroundings reflect her words in a kind of living mantra. Upstairs lives Woodson's friend, "landlord" and one of a handful of first readers of her work. Down the street, the school playground is awash in a sea of faces in every shade. "I exist in this really diverse community that has gay people, straight people, black people, white people, all kinds of people in it," she says. "This is enough for me. I'll stay right where I am and try to figure out how, through writing, through living, through my everyday actions, I can make this world a better place for the kids who are coming up. I feel like, if I can do that, then I've done my work."