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In her inspiring creative journey, author Jacqueline Woodson went from struggling with words as a child to mastering them today.

Design Matters: Jacqueline Woodson

Design Matters: Jacqueline Woodson

AUTHOR / WRITER / MACARTHUR FELLOW

15.3.21

Jacqueline Woodson / author / writer / words / language

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

As a child, Jacqueline Woodson loved to tell lies. There was something about seeing her friends’ eyes grow wide with wonder that she loved. She got into trouble for lying, but didn’t stop until fifth grade. That same year she wrote a story and her fifth grade teacher said, “this is really good.” That was when Jacqueline Woodson understood that a lie on the page was called fiction—and that could win you accolades and awards. Flash forward a few decades and many stories later. And she has indeed won many accolades and awards, including a National Book Award, several Newbery honors. And in 2020, she won a MacArthur “genius” award. Jacqueline Woodson, welcome to Design Matters.


Jacqueline Woodson:

It’s so nice to be here, Debbie.


Debbie Millman:

Thank you. Jacqueline, I understand your favorite villain is Eartha Kitt as Catwoman.


Jacqueline Woodson:

I love Eartha Kitt as anyone.


Debbie Millman:

Right?


Jacqueline Woodson:

Yeah. But I wasn’t a Batman fan until the kids showed up. I mean, my brothers were huge watchers of the show and I could care less. And then I was like, “Wait a second. Who is this?” Yeah, I’m actually a big fan of her 1953 album That Bad Eartha, which I’d like to think was a source of inspiration for her role on the Batman television series. She was such a royal villain. And looking back on it, I can’t believe she took Julie numerous place because she should have been the original on the television.


Debbie Millman:

I know.


Jacqueline Woodson:

I mean, Julie Newmar was hot. The thing that I love was Catwoman was allowed to have hips. Right? That was the first time I remember seeing someone whose curves were accentuated in that particular sort of way. You can tell as a kid, I was looking real hard.


Debbie Millman:

Jacqueline, you were born in Ohio, you lived in Nelsonville before you and your family moved to a segregated neighborhood called Nicholtown in Greenville, South Carolina, where you lived until you were 7. How did your family explain segregation to you at that time?


Jacqueline Woodson:

Well, I actually lived in Columbus. My grandparents lived in Nelsonville and they were the only Black family, for my memory of it. And then when I went back as a teenager we were definitely the only Black folks in the area. They still have the Nelsonville house. I don’t ever remember my family explaining it. It just was. It was like, Nicholtown was a safe place to be. This is where all the people we love live. This was our hood. Right? This was our neighborhood. And it wasn’t even a question. I don’t think I really started understanding the idea of segregation until I began learning about it. Right? That it was the sanction thing that for me, it was just like, “Here is my safe Black neighborhood where all my people are.”


Debbie Millman:

In doing my research, I came upon an interview where you were talking about your son and how he’s almost offended when people have questions about how your family exists in the world, or when he walks into a room where he’s the only kid of color, because it’s just not what he’s ever known. And I think about sort of how the world has shifted now and the hope that I have for the next generation.


Jacqueline Woodson:

I think that one, he is, I mean, even in literature, he doesn’t want to read any books that don’t have people of color represented in it. He’s just kind of like, “why would this exist in the world?” And at the same time, I think that his existence in a very multi-racial world is very intentional on me and my partner’s part. I think there’s still many, many homogenous families out there. And my daughter, who’s 18. He was talking about for a long time she didn’t know families could be all one color because that’s just her experience.


Jacqueline Woodson:

And I do think that, of course, to live inside the village and community we’ve created takes a certain amount of work and openness that I think people still aren’t willing to do. And I think there are a lot of communities that are still very segregated in some way.


Debbie Millman:

When you were a toddler, you did a series of advertisements for, I believe it’s called, Alaga Syrup.


Jacqueline Woodson:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

In Ebony magazine, and even though you were only 2 years old, you looked a lot older, so much so that the ads often featured you as a school-age child. And you’ve written about how you think of this fondly, because it was technically your first job. And I’m wondering, how did you first get into modeling?


Jacqueline Woodson:

I have no idea. I think at the time we were in South Carolina because Alaga stands for Alabama, Georgia.


Debbie Millman:

Oh. OK.


Jacqueline Woodson:

That’s what the syrup is. I remember a photoshoot. The first ad featured kids from all over the country. Right? And the ad was children everywhere Alaga syrup. And it was my sister, brother and I, we were the New York kids, which I don’t understand because we weren’t in New York full time yet. And so the ads were me saying, “I wish they had Alaga syrup in school too.” I think it was more about my look, this kind of wistful look, not looking directly at the camera, kind of looking away like I was wishing for something that fit what they were trying to execute in the advertisement.


Debbie Millman:

Why didn’t you continue modeling? You were a very cute baby.


Jacqueline Woodson:

I don’t know. I think that my mom is not a mom manager. That is not who she is by any means. And I think she was also overwhelmed. She had three kids, she was a single mom. She was trying to make that leap from Greenville to New York City. She and my dad had separated and I definitely got paid for, she got paid for that work. It was never anything I’d ever want to do in my life now as a grownup. But as a kid, I look back on it and ask, would ask her the same question. Come on, I could have made a lot of money and it wasn’t even an option.


Debbie Millman:

Your parents split up, or as you put it, fought for the final time when your older brother was 4, your sister was nearly 3. And you were just about 1. You didn’t see your dad again, I think, for 14 years.


Jacqueline Woodson:

Yeah. It was about 13 or 14 years. We moved to New York City and my mom and dad were pretty astray. We were estranged from the Woodson side and my mom really didn’t like my dad. I don’t think he was a good person to her for many years. I think also they were very young. I mean, mom had me, she was 22 and my dad was 24. And to think about that, to be that age and have three kids already, it’s just unthinkable to me. Of course, I had my first baby when I was 39. So it really is unthinkable, but yeah, I didn’t know who my father … I knew who he was. I knew all about the Woodson side of the family, but I didn’t know my father personally for a long time.


Debbie Millman:

When you reunited with him, you’ve written about how it felt as if it was though a puzzle piece had dropped from the air and landed right where it belonged.


Jacqueline Woodson:

I adore my dad.


Debbie Millman:

Was it difficult for your mother to see you with your dad at all? My parents divorced when I was 8. I didn’t see my father for five years. And when we were reunited, it was hell for everyone.


Jacqueline Woodson:

Interesting. My mom and dad got back together. Which I don’t recommend any level. And they stayed together for about five years. So that’s when I really met my dad. And then, so they had separated, but they hadn’t divorced. And then after that period of time, they divorced, like my mom’s like, “I’m going down to the court, I’m filing the papers. I’m done with this man.” But what it did allow for me was this chance to build a relationship with him that wasn’t fraught, because they were newly in love in some ways. But my relationship with him and with my aunties and the whole Woodson side continues to today. Whereas he and my mom didn’t speak again after they officially divorced.


Debbie Millman:

After they split-up the first time, your mother and siblings moved in with your grandparents in Nicholtown. Your grandmother was a Jehovah’s Witness. My father’s second wife was a Jehovah’s Witness. How much did that influence you as you were growing up?


Jacqueline Woodson:

A lot. Because it was the religion in our household. I mean, we were Jehovah’s Witnesses. It wasn’t like your grandma could be something and you couldn’t be that thing. But, but I grew up in a very religious household. Bible study on Monday at home. Bible study on Tuesday at the kingdom hall. I can’t remember what Wednesday was. Thursday was ministry school, watchtower study, and then out and field service on Saturday and back to the kingdom hall on Sunday.


Jacqueline Woodson:

So there was a lot of religion in the household and a lot of roles outside of the household. We didn’t pledge the flag. We did celebrate holidays or birthday parties. We didn’t curse. It’s just what was. Right? As much as I’m Jacqueline Woodson, I was a Jehovah’s Witness. It was all part of the same fabric in this way.


Debbie Millman:

Do you follow any type of organized religion now?


Jacqueline Woodson:

Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I definitely consider myself a very spiritual person and I definitely have beliefs from both my Jehovah’s Witness upbringing and my Muslim upbringing that I hold onto. I think one thing I got from the religions that I grew up in was a deep empathy, a deep understanding of people that allowed me to be a writer, but no, in terms of organized religion, I don’t ascribe to any because I just think that there’s no way to be fully human and not have to be kind of a hypocrite to live that kind of life.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve written about how by the time you were 3 years old, you could write the letter ‘J.’ You love the sound of the letter and you promised yourself one day as you were practicing that it would be connected to your full name, but that became a challenge when you got to the ‘Q.’ And I’m wondering if you can share with our listeners what happened?


Jacqueline Woodson:

Well the ‘Q’ is a trick letter. I understand even the ‘K’ is hard, but my full name is Jacqueline Amanda Woodson. And I struggled with the letter ‘Q’ to the point of becoming Jackie because it was shorter and easier to write, but it was interesting because from a young age, I understood the power of letters and words on the page and how they transformed a thing.


Debbie Millman:

When I was growing up and trying to practice my name, I couldn’t do the ‘H’ in Deborah, which is my formal name, D-E-B-O-R-A-H. And that is how I became Debbie.


Jacqueline Woodson:

Oh, that’s so funny.


Debbie Millman:

I know two ‘B’s together so much easier than ‘R’ ‘A’ ‘H’ and it is a cool thing to be ‘H.’


Jacqueline Woodson:

But it’s also cursive. Right? Trying to write them in cursive. It’s so interesting because when I’m signing books for young people, I realize a lot of them aren’t learning cursive anymore. So they don’t know how to read it, which is mind-blowing to me that my signature is going to become obsolete for lot of people who haven’t learned the language of cursive.


Debbie Millman:

We read an article about you, where it stated that you don’t know if ‘A’ is your favorite letter, but you like it a lot. And so would it be the cursive ‘A’ or the Roman ‘A’ or which ‘A’?


Jacqueline Woodson:

The cursive ‘A’ by far? Yeah. I just think it’s such a beautiful letter and I love the way it looks on the page. I love the way it shows up so often. And I don’t know, for me, of course it feels always like the beginning that it is to so many things.


Debbie Millman:

Jacqueline, you stated that when you were growing up, it was your sister who was the one that was considered smart, that you had a hard time reading. You had to read things over and over for the words to make sense. You’ve talked about this quite eloquently in your TED Talk, yet you fell in love with reading and writing; even though it was so difficult, it still was something that you were pulled towards.


Jacqueline Woodson:

Yeah, it was a challenge. And I knew I had it inside me somehow and it was just coming out differently. And I think that if I had been born now, I probably wouldn’t be the writer I am because it meant people having a certain kind of patience, but it also meant me not getting tagged as dyslexic or something, which would have put me into programs that would have made me have to find trick ways to read faster or to write faster.


Jacqueline Woodson:

And I think doing my process was the process of becoming a writer. Taking that time, really deconstructing words and the way authors got stories on the page. So I do think that behind that quote unquote “struggle” was the makings of me as a writer. And so I don’t think I ever felt any shame about it. I always felt, even as a young person, that I was right, and the system that was in place to say that the way I was doing it wasn’t the right way, was wrong. Was a broken thing.


Jacqueline Woodson:

And even with my sister and my older brother, who were both very academic and off the charts in the way they learned, I just saw “that is their thing. They just learn differently.” And because of the system that was set up in our house, which was that they had to help me get to where I needed to be, I didn’t fail. Right? Because if I failed, they would have been in trouble. So of course it was a struggle they had too.


Debbie Millman:

Now were you really truly telling lies? Or were you just making up fantastical stories that people thought were lies?


Jacqueline Woodson:

Both, both. I mean, someone went to Coney Island, I went to Coney Island, too. Right? And I got on this ride. And that was a lie. I didn’t, I wish I had, but I didn’t. And it was just to be part of the conversation. It was to be a part of the narratives that were being told. I never told fantastical lies. I mean, one of them was that my father lived in San Louis Obispo. I don’t even know how to pronounce it, but I found it on a map and I decided that’s where my father lived for years. He was right in Ohio, but Ohio’s not interesting. This place in California, having never been to California, that I don’t know. It seemed more interesting. And so it was the kind of daily lies that also got told, but also lies about things I’ve done and trips I was going to take, all of that stuff. They were stories.


Debbie Millman:

So you had a highly imaginative mind. You’ve written about how a lie on the page means lots of independent time to create stories and the freedom to sit hunched over the pages of your notebook without people thinking you were strange. Did you think that people thought you were strange?


Jacqueline Woodson:

That’s a good question. Yeah. I think people thought our whole family was strange. Here we were, this family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, everybody else was Baptist, a Catholic. Here we were, this … my mother never let us wear anything but cotton or linen, like, and this was in the ’70s where everyone was rocking polyester. We were this family that the street lights were on. We were inside when the rest of the neighborhood was just getting started. We weren’t allowed to curse. And this was again during that era of funk and gang fun.


Debbie Millman:

You weren’t allowed to listen to any song with the word funk in it, right?


Jacqueline Woodson:

No, no, no. Oh, hell no. I mean, we had a lot of rules in place, and as the Woodson family, we were strange, but me individually, like not so much, but as part of that family, our family, yeah. We were strange.


Debbie Millman:

You and your family moved to Brooklyn when you were 7 and your mother bought a brownstone in Bushwick. I was around 6 when we moved there, and it’s a townhouse. She didn’t buy it. She was renting at that time. And then she ended up buying. What were your first impressions of Brooklyn?


Jacqueline Woodson:

It was cement. When we moved to Brooklyn, the first place we lived was Brownsville. And we came to Brownsville because my aunt Kay was there, peaches. We had some play cousins and stuff who had moved from Greenville. And that’s how the great migration worked. Right? People went where their relatives and their friends were. And it was a poor neighborhood. Even as a child, I remember that it was a struggling, struggling neighborhood. And we lived in an apartment building, which always felt dark to me because I had come from the country. I had to come from green. I had come from big windows and light.


Jacqueline Woodson:

And so I remember even as a really young kid feeling like, “this is not my place—these are my people, but this is not my place.” And then when we moved to Bushwick, which was townhouses, right? Three-story townhouses, wood-framed houses, and it was a block. So I met my best friend, Maria, and it started becoming a place I belonged. And even though we went down South every summer, I did begin to belong to Bushwick. And it’s so funny because even now as my partner and I think about living somewhere and we were talking about Harlem, I’m like, “I can’t leave Brooklyn. I’m a Brooklyn girl. Through and through. I could go to another neighborhood in Brooklyn, but I can’t leave Brooklyn.”


Debbie Millman:

Around fifth grade. You wrote a poem about Martin Luther King. No one believed you wrote it because they thought it was too good. People finally realized you had writing talent when a fairly surly teacher of yours complimented a short story that you’d written. And at that point, people not only believed you indeed penned the poem, you also won a Scrabble game because of it. And I was trying to figure that out. I was going through all sorts of little rabbit holes to try to understand why did you win a Scrabble game as a prize?


Jacqueline Woodson:

Because it was us. It was a school-wide event. And I remember the Scrabble game was the first prize. And I can’t remember what the second prize was, but I wanted the second prize. Maybe it was a necklace or something.


Debbie Millman:

And so do you still play Scrabble to this day? Given your love of words?


Jacqueline Woodson:

Oh man. I’m much more inclined to play Bananagrams, but we do play Scrabble, and growing up because there was so much we weren’t allowed to do—like my mother allowed Monopoly, but we weren’t really allowed any games with dice. So Scrabble was a big game in our houses, young people.


Debbie Millman:

You began to write on everything and everywhere. You wrote on paper bags and your shoes and denim, binders, you chucked stories across sidewalks and penciled tiny tales in notebook margins. You copied lyrics to songs from records and TV. You even wrote your name in graffiti on the side of a building. What was your tag?


Jacqueline Woodson:

It was just “Jackie” and I had left out the ‘I’ cause I was trying to write so fast. So it’s J-A-C-K-E. It was a can of black spray paint. And I got so busted for it, but it was that time where everybody was tagging. Right. And everyone had a can of spray paint. And I was writing something somewhere, including in cement. Like the minute someone laid down a fresh sidewalk, city kids were all over tagging their name.


Debbie Millman:

Using their finger to write their names. Yeah.


Jacqueline Woodson:

But I didn’t have a short fire tag, like some of the graffiti greats.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve said this about your early love affair with writing. “I loved and still love watching words flower into sentences, and sentences blossom into stories.” Yet, Jackie, early on, you still thought you might be a hairdresser or a teacher or a lawyer. When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?


Jacqueline Woodson:

I didn’t want to be any of those things. I was just saying that stuff because that’s what adults wanted me to be. You had to have a backstory for adults and I love doing hair—everybody else’s, not my own. My mom had thought I should be a lawyer because I was always arguing. And we played school a lot and I liked being a teacher? And I loved teaching my little brother. I loved when my sister taught me. And also, when you look at it, those were the fields that Black people went into, especially hairdressing and teaching.


Jacqueline Woodson:

And so it seemed achievable. And for me, in my head, those were the backup plans if writing didn’t work out, but I really didn’t have a backup plan. And even in thinking about those as careers, writing was something I was going to always do. I just wrote this foreword for Catherine McKinley’s book, The African Lookbook, where I talked about growing up. I was sent to sewing school every Saturday morning. Sent to sewing school because my mother was a Southerner, and she’s like, if all else fails, you can saw. So like, you can be a seamstress.


Debbie Millman:

My mom was a seamstress. So that’s how I learned to sew.


Jacqueline Woodson:

Oh, I love sewing. I love it. Now.


Debbie Millman:

You went to college at Adelphi University. You majored in British literature and middle English.


Jacqueline Woodson:

No, I actually majored in English and minored in British literature.


Debbie Millman:

OK. OK. OK. But I know you also worked as a drama therapist for homeless and runaway teenagers in New York. What kind of work were you doing as a drama therapist?


Jacqueline Woodson:

I was basically working with young people, helping them or trying to help them to come up through the use of drama with better ways of coping with everything from parental conflict to getting to school, to being able to talk to their peers. I think a lot of the young people I was working with, having come from trauma, had lost their voice in so many ways, and in my work and having them write plays and perform—I don’t know if you saw a Radha Blank’s 40-Year-Old Version, but it was kind of the Radha Blank work that she was doing in 40-Year-Old Version. But working with runaway and homeless kids.


Debbie Millman:

How did you learn how to do that?


Jacqueline Woodson:

I got some training from the psychiatric Institute. I had a drama therapist that I was working with. … I mean, I know young people, I know how young people think I know about conflict resolution, but it was hard, hard work.


Debbie Millman:

After you graduated, you worked at a children’s packaging company.


Jacqueline Woodson:

I worked for a children’s book, packaging company. Yeah. Kerchief Walberg.


Debbie Millman:

And what kind of work were you doing at that time?


Jacqueline Woodson:

I started out as receptionist and then I was doing some editorial work. I did some writing where I wrote some of the standardized tests that were in books that … I apologize for that. That was basically it. I did office managing and editing and writing and just kind of anything that they asked me to do, and any writing they allowed me to do.


Debbie Millman:

In the reading comprehension tests that you wrote, is that when your character of Maizon first appeared?


Jacqueline Woodson:

Yes. So I had already written Last Summer With Maizon. And so I used part of that in that reading comprehension.


Debbie Millman:

I can’t imagine what it would be like to find that test now.


Jacqueline Woodson:

I had it somewhere. I just sent all my archives to the Bernanke and that was, I came across this. I was like, “Ah, get it out of here. I’m so sorry for participating in standardized testing in this way.”


Debbie Millman:

You enrolled in Bunny Gable’s children’s book writing class at The New School, where Bebe Willoughby, an editor at Delacorte, heard you reading from what would become your first book. And she requested the manuscript. Delacorte bought it. And in 1990, your first book, Last Summer With Maizon, came out. You were 27. How did your family respond to you being a published author?


Jacqueline Woodson:

I don’t think they understood. I think that my mom and my grandma, I think their biggest concern was, am I going to be able to pay my rent? And they didn’t understand how the publishing industry work. They didn’t understand the advances and royalty advances against royalties and royalties payments. And so I think that they were very, very proud and I think their big fear was like, “OK, is this going to be enough to keep you living outside of our house? Are you going to have to move back in?”


Jacqueline Woodson:

But I think they were concerned. I mean, I was queer, I was an artist. I was like, there wasn’t the husband rescue coming right there, there wasn’t the job with pension rescue coming. So how was I going to be able to be OK? So they were concerned.


Debbie Millman:

You do some interesting things with point of view in the amazing trilogy. The character of Maizon is in the book’s title in the first and second book, but Margaret is also an essential character in Last Summer With Maizon. And I’m wondering what made you decide to use the title Last Summer With Maizon as opposed to something like Margaret’s Last Summer With Maizon, or something that included Margaret?


Jacqueline Woodson:

I don’t know. It’s Margaret story, and it’s her story of loss, and it’s her story of not only losing her dad, but losing her best friend. And even though it’s the last one with Maizon, it’s part of a bigger testimony of last summer. So it made sense though … because Maizon is such a big part of Margaret’s life.


Debbie Millman:

Very few of your books are autobiographical, but you did draw on some of your own history in writing the Maizon trilogy. How did your family feel about seeing some of their personalities in your books?


Jacqueline Woodson:

It’s so funny because even when I talked about being a writer, like their big fear was like, don’t go spreading our dirty laundry. Right? And I always thought the characters in my head are so much more interesting than what’s happening in my real life. I think that in Maizon, they didn’t see themselves so much. I don’t think my grandmother read it. I think the first book my grandmother read of mine through and through was We Had a Picnic This Sunday Past, which was a picture book.


Jacqueline Woodson:

And I think she would always say, “your books are too sad for me,” but it would be. I could write a short story with a white grandmother. And my grandma’s like, “Oh, there you go. Put me in one of your books again. I’m one of your stories again.” But I think that they really didn’t see themselves. I remember my mother asking me at one point, like, “when am I going to be a character in one of your books?” And of course it wasn’t until Brown Girl Dreaming after she passed away that I was able to truly tell her story. But I really tried to shy away from too much autobiographical writing just because I didn’t want people coming from me.


Debbie Millman:

Last Summer With Maizon came out in 1990. As I mentioned, The Dear One followed in 1991. Since then you’ve written over 30 books. These include picture books, books for young adults, books for adults and poetry. You’ve won pretty much every award a writer can win, including a National Book Award, several Coretta Scott King awards, Newbery Awards. And in 2020, as I mentioned in the introduction, you won a MacArthur “genius” award. At what point after Last Summer With Maizon were you able to stop working side jobs and write full time?


Jacqueline Woodson:

So in 1991, I went to McDowell for the first time. That was the first artist residency that accepted me. I had been applying and that kind of changed my life. And at that point I was working part time, too. I’m sorry, 1990, I went to McDowell. And then in 1991, I got a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center, which is a seven month fellowship. You moved to Provincetown from October through May. And basically they give you a stipend and a place to live. And that was the point where I said, “OK, I’m going to take this leap.” And I stayed in Provincetown for five years because it was so much cheaper to live there. And I worked part time. I started teaching and writing for one of the local magazines to help make ends meet.


Debbie Millman:

You’re usually working on more than one book at a time. How do you develop the story ideas? When do you know that “this is something I want to pursue for a book”?


Jacqueline Woodson:

Pretty early on. I have the idea for the story and I have the character’s voice. I think a lot of my books are character-driven. I don’t know what the character wants always or how they’re going to get it in the narrative, but I do have a sense of place. And some of the stuff I’m trying to talk about our work out for myself because I always think all the books I’m writing, I’m trying to work out something for myself pretty early on. And of course it falls apart. Of course it becomes something completely different than what I thought it was going to become. Of course, it’s a puzzle like when you look at something like Red at the Bone where I’m trying to figure out so many things, but early on I have the characters and a little bit more than that.


Debbie Millman:

Do you write a book from beginning to end or do you write your plots out of order and then piece them together? Or do you just sort of sit down and let the work surprise you?


Jacqueline Woodson:

I let it surprise me. I never know what a plot is. I just think you put two people in the room and get them talking. You have conflict, you have plot, you have it all. I do try to go from beginning to end for the first draft. And sometimes I’ll get to the middle and go write the end and then come back and write toward, especially when it’s falling apart and I’m not sure what I’m trying to say. And then writing that last line helps me understand where I’m going.


Debbie Millman:

When you say falling apart, what do you mean?


Jacqueline Woodson:

It means it sucks. Something you wrote yesterday that sounded so amazing, you wake up the next morning and you read, and you’re like “this is trash.” And you think you have an idea that’s a strong one for where you want the book to be carried to. And it’s not, it’s just superficial. And you’re using tropes and cliches, which is the biggest fear for me, is like, I’ll pick up a book and read a cliche in it that I’ve written. So it’s a lot of rewriting, a lot of reading out loud. When I get off this podcast, I’m working on a book now that I need to just sit and read out loud and figure out what’s happening and what I need to fix.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve said this about the stories you want to tell: “I wanted to write about communities that were familiar to me and people that were familiar to me. I wanted to write about communities of color. I wanted to write about girls. I wanted to write about friendship and all of these things that I felt were missing in a lot of the books that I read as a child.” And Jacqueline, you have. And I was researching the level of diversity in children’s books now and found a statistic from 2018. I couldn’t find anything much more formal about 2021, but I learned that diversity in children’s books, as recently as 2018, looked like this 50% of books were about white children. 27% were about animals or fantasy characters. 10% were about African American children. 7% were about Asian children. 5% were about Latinx children, and 1% were about American Indian children.


Debbie Millman:

So from what I understand, things have only improved marginally since then three years ago. And I don’t expect that you should be able to solve a problem you had no hand in creating and are almost single-handedly trying to change, but given this problem is clearly established, what do you think it’s going to take for publishing to make material changes in regard to diversity, equity and inclusion?


Jacqueline Woodson:

Publishing houses have to change? I mean, I think about someone like Debbie Reese, who has the blog American Indians and children’s book, who’s like trying to single-handedly change the narrative of the scarcity of books for and about and by indigenous people. You look at the Latinx numbers and there are a lot of Latinx writers. Why are those books not getting the shine or publishing? And then you go to the publishing houses and they’re white. They are so white and, but publishing houses need to change and there’s a reticence.


Jacqueline Woodson:

I think people are not wanting to give up the power they have as publishers, as editors, as publicists. I mean, even my speakers’ bureau, a couple of years ago they sent a card and I was like, “really, you sent this card out where every single one of you, except one Southeast Asian woman, is white.”


Jacqueline Woodson:

I would be embarrassed to send that. And I remember writing in Locomotion about white blindness people, not being able to see the whiteness around them from the point of view of this 11-year-old boy, because I think kids see this. Right? But I do think that’s where the change has to come. I mean, at this point I’m Jacqueline Woodson, so I’m a safe person to publish. And what about the Jacqueline Woodsons of 1989 who no one was looking at? So I do think we have so much work to do.


Jacqueline Woodson:

I remember in the early ’90s, people were trying to do away with a Coretta Scott King award because they were saying that, well, now that some Black folks have won the new barriers, like, no, I mean, how many at that point one person of color was winning every 10 years.


Jacqueline Woodson:

And then we had to [inaudible] because Latinx folks are not getting the shine that they should be getting. And the work the publishing houses, the need for people to really not only understand how important these books are, but that they can sell if we put the energy behind them. Because I think that’s the other argument that, well, people aren’t buying those books. I remember they said that until Terry McMillan published, right?


Jacqueline Woodson:

I remember having an argument with an editor outright, which was a writers’ conference back in the day, about Black folks not buying books. And that’s why publishers don’t publish them. And I was blown away. I mean, so I do think there is so much that can still be done because I walk into these classrooms and there are a couple of my books on the shelf and I am the Black representation, even though I know that there are so other authors out there doing the work. And when we look at Asian numbers, when we look at Latinx numbers, when we look at the numbers of indigenous people, those are struggling, to say the least.


Debbie Millman:

I discovered We Need Diverse Books, which lives at diversebooks.org. And I think that it’s a really interesting place for people to go for resources. If they’re looking for specific books.


Jacqueline Woodson:

Yeah. We Need Diverse Books is an amazing organization and really doing the work to increase visibility and get those books published. Kwame Alexander has an imprint. Chris Myers has an imprint. A number of people have imprints where they’re publishing books by and for, and about people of color. I mean, they’re for everyone and they’re by and about, which is another important thing, because that was one of the things publishers were doing. They were publishing books, supposedly quote, unquote, “for a certain group of people,” but they were not necessarily written by those people.


Debbie Millman:

Well, I, actually, that segues perfectly into the next question that I want to ask you. I’ve been thinking about your comments about disliking books that don’t offer some type of hope. And you’ve pointed to the book Sounder as an example of a bleak and hopeless novel. And that book traumatized me when I read it in junior high school. And in prep for this interview, I read the Wikipedia entry yesterday to sort of refamiliarize myself with the plot. I actually started weeping while I read the Wikipedia entry. And it is a really heartbreaking, hopeless story. But then I realized that Sounder was written by a white man.


Jacqueline Woodson:

Exactly, exactly. That’s why I hate it. Yeah. I mean, it’s a white perspective on a Black family. And at the beginning of the book, he says an old Black man told him this story or something like that. It’s so broken in so many ways. I mean all hats off to Cicely Tyson and the crew that killed the movie, which is very different from the book. But that book was constantly being put into the hands of young people. It won the Newbery; it would never win the Newbery today.


Jacqueline Woodson:

And it was a hopeless story of it from the white gaze of Black existence. If a Black person had told that story, it would be completely different.


Debbie Millman:

I actually in thinking about the book in the last 24 hours realized that the only being, because I can’t even say person, you’ll leave being in the book that had a name was Sounder, the dog. Nobody else had a name.


Jacqueline Woodson:

And they never hug each other, which is not the Southern way. There’s so much but that’s the first … and as a kid, I remember that was the first thing. I was like, “What are their names?” Especially as a writer and especially as a young person who wanted to write and realizing that it was written by a white guy, is like, what message are kids of color taking away from that in terms of who they can be as writers? And I think that’s what we’ve been trying to talk about for so long. This is what Dr. Rudin Sims Bishop talks about. This is what We Need Diverse Books is fighting for, is like, what message are we giving our young people when we don’t have the books that represent them? When we have books that are not written by the people who look like they do?


Debbie Millman:

You write about social, economic, physical, sexual and racial issues, and mostly your characters learn about themselves and grow a new awareness about themselves in your books, but your writing is never cheesy or preachy or heavy-handed. How do you balance this sort of innate optimism and hopefulness in your books with such hard topics?


Jacqueline Woodson:

It’s funny, because I think a lot of people wouldn’t think that topics are hard. They’re just our everyday lives. I mean, in terms of early on when we were talking about segregation, it wasn’t this heartbreak of segregation for us, it was a celebration of community and the power of numbers and the way we can take care of ourselves. And I think the same when I’m talking about something, like, I hadn’t meant to tell you this and the story of a girl whose father is abusive for so many, that is the reality and it’s tragic reality and it’s also their daily existence. So for them, they have to be able to find the hope to get up every morning inside of that reality.


Jacqueline Woodson:

And so for me as a writer, that’s where I go to—it’s like it was Madeleine L’Engle who said, “when you write, write, remembering the child you were because the essence of childhood doesn’t change.” And so I go back to who I was at a certain age and remember this stuff that was glorious. Right? And that’s not to hit people over the head because that’s also the first rule of writing for young people, is you can’t be didactic, but go back to where the light was, to where the sun was, and what was the reason that we did continue to walk through the world.


Jacqueline Woodson:

I remember reading all those books about queer kids and they always either committed suicide or tried to commit suicide. Right? Like that was the ending if you were a queer kid in the ’70s and even in the early ’80s. And for me, like that’s not an option. Right? And I don’t think that should be an option for anyone. And so when I’m writing about these topics that are real life, what I really try to go to is, is the nuance of all that—that means it is the hope, it is the struggle, it is the reward and the growth. And that’s what comes to the book.


Debbie Millman:

My three favorite books of yours are your first, of course, Last Summer With Maizon. I love that book. The children’s book the great Sophie Blackall illustrated, Pecan Pie Baby, and your memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming. And one thing I loved about Pecan Pie Baby was the emotion that you write for Jia the little girl who was anticipating her mom’s a new baby. And you write this from Jia’s perspective: “Some days I just sat on my stoop thinking about all the years it has been just me and mama, about us drinking hot chocolate and telling silly stories. About the mornings I jumped into her bed when it was still blue, pink, outside, snuggling up to her while she tried to keep on sleeping.” In three short sentences you know so much about how Jia feels. How do you do that? How do you do that?


Jacqueline Woodson:

It’s so—


Jacqueline Woodson:

Thank you. Thanks for reading that too. That book has such a special place in my heart. Our kids are six years apart and I always think about when you make that decision to bring a second child into the world, what you gain and what you lose and what the child gains and what the child loses. And it is about getting rid of your darlings. And for me, reading out loud to get to the essence of what the moment is. It doesn’t mean a whole lot of adjectives. It’s just like, “take me into the moment and then take me out again and trust that the moment on its own, without a lot of extra words around it, makes sense.”


Jacqueline Woodson:

And by the time I wrote Pecan Pie Baby, I was already a mom. And I had gone through hundreds of picture books with a whole lot of words in them. And I was not going to do that to another parent. The kid would come to bed and there would be a book and they’re like, “This is like the Bible. No, we’re not reading this tonight. Don’t get me Mo Willems, go get me someone who has about four words in the book and I’m good.” But yeah, I really in that book wanted to get to the essence and, and also really represent what it means to be family.


Debbie Millman:

And then I found out that you don’t even like pecan pie.


Jacqueline Woodson:

I don’t, they just too sweet.


Debbie Millman:

What is it like to work with illustrators? You’ve worked with such a range of illustrators. Talk about what that relationship is between the visual and the verbal?


Jacqueline Woodson:

I get to choose my illustrators, which is lovely. And so it means my editor helps me a lot with research. I used to go to the library and just sit and go through books and books and books until I found someone I loved. And once I choose my illustrator, I’m really not allowed to talk to them at all. So we work in different ways. Well, they’ll send sketches. So I get to see sketches with James Ransom. And this is the rope. What he did was he sent me a note. He’s like, “tell me what, when you wrote this book, what were you thinking? And what were you trying to say?” And I wrote him back and then he went off and illustrated it. And then like, with something like The Other Side, I saw sketches and I thought their clothes were a little whack, but I liked the sketches.


Jacqueline Woodson:

And then he went on and drew it. And it wasn’t until I got the book that I realized he had set it in the past, and that had not been my intention for the book. So I was pissed.


Jacqueline Woodson:

And some of the struggles in some of the sketches … I think one thing was Sophie, like the hair—I don’t know why illustrators can’t get with Black folks and our hair. Like our hair isn’t just one style. It isn’t just one way. So I got a lot more sketches from her because I wanted her to get the hair right. There’s a lot of trust because I can’t say to the illustrator, “draw this.” They’re not saying to me, “write that.” So that’s their form. This is mine. And it comes together and it becomes this other thing. But you do give up a lot of power. Right? With something like The Day You Begin, I just think Rafael [Lopez] does such a glorious job with that book. And even in his sketches, I understood what he was going for. And I’m like, “I trust his process.”


Debbie Millman:

You’ve said that Brown Girl Dreaming is the story of yourself and an ode to those who came before you, who made a way out of no way so that you could be educated and truly live the American Dream. It is a stunningly beautiful book. It won a National Book Award, a Coretta Scott King award and NAACP award, and a Newbery honor. You wrote the book in verse. What made you decide to do that?


Jacqueline Woodson:

Because it’s memory. And I think it would be completely dishonest to try to write a bit as Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3. I mean, that’s not how memory works. That’s not how it comes to us. It comes to us as these small moments with all of this white space, all of this unknown around it. And so I wanted to represent that on the page. And so it made sense to write it in verse.


Debbie Millman:

You said that one of the reasons you wrote Brown Girl Dreaming was to understand who your mom was before she was your mother. And you wanted to understand exactly how you got here and the context of your life through their stories. How often were you surprised as you were researching your life and talking to your relatives and friends?


Jacqueline Woodson:

Every single day? I remember, my best friend is Toshi Reegan and she’s a musician. She came up through the Civil Rights Movement. Her mom was part of Snick. And I remember whenever I’m writing and stuck, I sit down and I talked to her and I remember when I was writing it and it was all over the place. And it just felt boring and didn’t make sense. And I was whining about “no one’s ever going to read this because it’s so specific to me. And it, just nothing’s happening. And nothing was happening when I was a kid. And she said, “what are you talking about? This country was on fire in 1963.”


Jacqueline Woodson:

“Everything was happening.” And that first poem, “I am born as the South explodes / too many people too many years / enslaved, then emancipated / but not free, the people / who look like me / keep marching / and fighting / and getting killed / so that young people like me can grow up free.”


Jacqueline Woodson:

It just fell into place. And the rest of the book began to make sense, and everything from where my mother was during the Civil Rights Movement to the fact that my great, great grandfather was part of the Civil War. Just surprise after surprise, and with each one I kept saying “we were here.” We were here because I think the thing about our histories and our ancestors, it feels theoretical. Right? It feels almost like something that’s so not tangible because it’s just a story. But the more you investigate the stories, the more I did, the more I realized that I am. So part of a long line that I didn’t just wake up this morning [as] Jacqueline Woodson. That is because my mother and my great grandfather, my great, great grandfather. So there were so many surprises.


Debbie Millman:

As I was reading Brown Girl Dreaming, I was struck by the way you wrote about air. The word first shows up in this sentence about your father catching a football. Coaches were watching the way he moved his easy stride, his long arms reaching up, snatching the ball from its soft pocket of air. That sentence astounded me. You then go on to talk about air throughout the book. You write about how there is too much air between words and the lilt of her words, a breath of warm air, moving over each leaf, and this about your grandfather’s illness. “His cough moves through the air, back into our room with a light is almost blue, the white winter sun painting it.” And Jacqueline, as I researched this, I found that there are academic papers analyzing your use of air and dirt in Brown Girl Dreaming. I don’t even know if you’ve noticed?


Jacqueline Woodson:

No, way. I had no idea. Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

Because I was like, I wonder if there’s anybody that’s written about this, that I could ask her about it. And I found that there’s an academic paper about your use of air and dirt. And I’m wondering about how conscious you were of at least the theme of air as you were writing?


Jacqueline Woodson:

That’s wild. I had no idea that people are doing that kind of research on me. I think the air thing for me comes with the juxtaposition between the country and the city and having made that transition as a young person. And when I think of the past, when I think of the South, when I think of Ohio, when I think of so much that has come before me, I do think there’s much more air in that. I think of this moment and the city as being much more confining. So even in writing that scene “football dreams,” when I’m talking about my dad, I see that moment as this very outdoor moment lots of white space, lots of sky, lots of field.


Jacqueline Woodson:

And a lot of times when I look back on Greenville, that’s how I remember it. When I look back on the past and the places that I can’t touch or see anymore, I remember them as being much more open than the present spaces that are much more confined.


Debbie Millman:

On your website, you state that you once wrote a book in two weeks and it only needed a little revision, but the next book took four years. And I’m always astonished to find out that musicians have what the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright, Michael R. Jackson, calls “dead trunk songs.” The songs that don’t make it to an album or to a show. And given how many books you’ve written, do you have stories that you’ve decided aren’t worth pursuing once you start them, or dead trunk books?


Jacqueline Woodson:

I definitely have dead trunk books. For a long time, I did not. I remember I was trying to write this book from the point of view of a horse and it was a horse that was this girl’s support animal. It just wasn’t working. And I’m sure there are more there; I have another story that was called When the Red Dirt Rose, which was one of my early books about the country. And I think it didn’t make it as a book, but a lot of it ended up in other books, unlike the horse.


Debbie Millman:

Jacqueline, I just have a few last questions for you today. The first is about your MacArthur Fellowship. Last year, you won one of the most prestigious honors in the world, the MacArthur “genius” award. And I read that you’re planning to use the grant money to expand the residency program you founded for people of color. Can you talk a bit more about the program, how you chose the name and your goals for it?


Jacqueline Woodson:

Yeah, it’s great. It’s been great. We actually have a fellow here now. It’s called Baldwin for the Arts, named after James Baldwin, and modeled a lot after McDowell, which was, as I said earlier, my first residency. [It] gave me a lot of support in helping me figure not financial support, but figuring out the design for Baldwin.


Jacqueline Woodson:

So when we bought this property, we were looking for a space that was big enough. It’s four acres. So the end, it has four buildings on it that we’re renovating into studios for visual artists, composers and writers that are BIPOC. So it’s all for BIPOC people. And I really wanted a safe space. I really wanted a place where people could come and not have to explain anything. I think as a fellow, even though the fellowships were phenomenal, I was often one of few people of color there. And I really wanted to create a space, also modeled after Cave Canem, which I feel like changed the narrative of poetry in terms of thinking about Black poets and getting their work out into the world. I wanted to leave something like that behind. So it’s been a lot of work and that’s great.


Debbie Millman:

My last question: What is the release date of your next book and what is it about?


Jacqueline Woodson:

The next book coming out? I think in 2022, and it’s called The Year We Learned to Fly, and it’s illustrated by Rafael Lopez and it’s about two kids who are cooped up in their house and they have to use their … and it takes us back to the middle passage and Virginia Hamilton’s book The People Could Fly. And that idea that Black folks, the way they freed themselves from enslavement, was to fly back across the ocean, and that’s coming out. Then that’s a picture book. I’m also working on a middle-grade that’s sitting on my desk. I’m not going to say anything about it because it’s not done. And I’m superstitious about that. I also just finished the screenplay for Red at the Bone.


Debbie Millman:

That’s so exciting. So, so exciting. Jacqueline Woodson, thank you for creating such beautiful work in the world. And thank you so much for joining me today on Design Matters.


Jacqueline Woodson:

Thanks for your great questions. It’s so nice to talk to you.


Debbie Millman:

Thank you. Jacqueline Woodson’s most recent books include The New York Times bestselling novel Red at the Bone and Before the Ever After. You can find out more about all of Jacqueline Woodson’s books on her website, jacquelinewoodson.com. This is the 17th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman. I look forward to talking with you again.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman