For Jacqueline Woodson, reading is an equation. As part of her message as 2018’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, she challenges readers to come up with their equation by giving them her own: Reading = Hope x Change.
The response has been overwhelming. “Everyone has an equation and is eager to share it,” says Woodson. “We put up huge banners and they quickly filled up.” Creative slogans included Reading > The Movie and Reading = A Free Trip to Other Worlds!
Woodson, author of the National Book Award–winning memoir Brown Girl Dreaming and picture books like The Other Side, which lyrically explores race, has never lacked for words. As a child, whenever a story struck her, she wrote on whatever was at hand: paper bags, shoes, notebook margins. But she struggled with reading. When asked how she overcame this, Woodson says, “People reading to me.”
Her new book, The Day You Begin, addresses kids feeling different. The message: It’s okay to feel this way, and sometimes “the world opens itself up a little wider to make some space for you.”
Q | What can teachers do to help kids feel included?
A | Teachers are the gatekeepers. They set the tone, so it’s up to them to show the young people walking through their doors that they are welcome. This is represented via the posters on the wall, the books on the shelves, and, most of all, by what teachers say. Language is a huge part of welcoming students. Never assume anything about any child—they all come into the classroom with so much we don’t know about them.
Q | Several of your books are based on family memories. Does this inform how you approach the world?
A | I love my family and the history I come from. Our histories inform us whether we’re aware of it or not. So while I’m not always conscious of mining my family and history to write, I probably am mostly doing just that. My mom and I had a tough relationship through most of my teen years, but at the end of the day, whatever I remember about her was her deep moral code. Most of her and my grandmother’s “raising” us was around lessons of kindness: Hold the door for people, make eye contact, ask a person how their day was and listen to their answer. I approach the world by giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. My friends call it optimism but I think of it as kindness. I truly believe there is good in everyone, and those who seem “not so great” probably carry some deep pain or sadness. This gives me a perspective on the world that both helps me write and helps me walk through it.
Q | What was your favorite picture book to write? What is one of your lesser-known picture books we should know about?
A | I loved writing all of them for very different reasons. Each Kindness forced me to take a deeper look at my own kindnesses and unkindnesses. Visiting Day allowed me to go back to my childhood when I spent long hours traveling to visit my uncle in prison. I think the book people don’t know about is one of my earliest, Our Gracie Aunt, which is about familial foster care. It’s probably my most wordy picture book! If I were to rewrite it, I’d take what I’ve learned over the years and edit it.
Q | You wrote that you’re still surprised when you win an award or receive acclaim for a book. Do most writers feel that way?
A | I can’t speak for most writers. I’m just always surprised that I’m getting awarded for doing what I was put here to do, and what I love to do. There are a lot of people doing amazing work that goes unrecognized—teachers, caregivers, determined activists, thoughtful lawyers. There are people out there really working hard to change the world. I’m just one of them. I’m tremendously grateful that people are reading my work and understanding what I’m trying to say and do.
Q | What are some of your favorite moments as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature?
A | Being ambassador has helped me see more of the world, and through a different gaze. In Sweden, I was stunned to walk into an auditorium that looked like the United Nations—brown, black, and white kids, Muslim and Christian—it was beautiful. And then when they started singing a Negro spiritual, I nearly burst into tears. At a juvenile detention center in Mississippi, I got to hear some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever heard; the boys were brilliant. In a classroom in Utah, it was so fun to let the kids have their pictures taken with my medal. This was a classroom with one of the most clear-eyed, smart, and loving teachers I’ve ever spent time with.
Q | I know you loved to write stories as a child. What are some creative ways teachers can get kids to tell their stories?
A | Give them a pencil and paper and then read to them. Read to them. Read to them. While you’re reading to them, tell them to write what inspires them as they listen. Tell them no one is ever going to see it. Tell them they can throw it away when they’re done, if they want. Unlock their fear through freedom. If they know they have a choice about what they can do with their writing, they’ll be more inclined to write. But you must read to them. Even if they’re “independent readers,” or whatever, read to them.
Photo: Marty Umans/Courtesy of Penguin Group USA