If you know Jacqueline Woodson’s books, you love Jacqueline Woodson’s books. Her use of words to give birth to completely authentic characters puts me in awe. She’s written picture books, middle grade novels and YA. She’s won too many awards to name. Tomorrow, she’s speaking about her latest novel, “Brown Girl Dreaming,” a memoir in verse about her childhood, at a college in my area. Because of that, I had the incredible fortune of interviewing her for an article for my newspaper, and now I’m posting the full text of the interview below.
Woodson (who I really want to refer to as J. Wood, like J. Law, but I don’t know that that’s a thing) is on the board for the We Need Diverse Books campaign, which if you don’t already know about, you need to go check out now. Actually, you should read this interview, and then go check it out.
KN: What does diversity in children’s literature mean? Why is it so important?
JW: It means all kinds of books being available for all kinds of children. It’s important because children need to see reflections of themselves as well as representations of other kinds of people in literature. This helps this not only feel like they’re a legitimate part of society (not invisible) but also helps them understand the bigger world and the greater good and begin to learn empathy, tolerance, understanding, etc.
KN: Did the outpouring of support for the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign this year surprise you?
JW: I was very happy by the response but not surprised. People have been saying this for a long time — It’s great that other people are beginning to hear it.
KN: A Publisher’s Weekly article about the diverse books panel at BookCon quoted you as as saying publishers pigeonhole and promote books as “issue-related” or “about a black kid” or “about a gay kid,” and that we need to talk differently about books. How do you describe your books?
JW: My books are about people. People who are trying to figure out who they are becoming, where they’re going and how they’re going to get there.
KN: Whether it’s a little girl who’s sick of hearing about “that ding-dang baby” sibling on the way or a teenager addicted to meth, you do an incredible job developing your characters’ distinct voices. How do you get into their heads?
JW: I start with their hearts — I believe even though so much of us is different — skin color, economic class, family make up, etc – -In our hearts, we all long for the same thing — to love, to be loved.
KN: Do you choose some of the sensitive themes of your books (e.g. addiction, abuse, taboo relationships) intentionally, or do the stories choose you?
JW: I don’t really choose themes — I think those happen when critics and scholars and teachers start explaining my books — I never really think about anything more than character — and maybe that’s why my characters feel as real as they do.
KN: In your (beautiful!) new book, “Brown Girl Dreaming,” there’s a passage in which you discover the picture book “Stevie” by John Steptoe as a child, and it’s the first time you encounter a book filled with brown people. Was that a conscious realization for you at the time?
JW: Very much so. I didn’t know what I was missing until I found it. It was visceral and to this day, the memory is very clear and deep.
KN: What steps do you recommend people take in promoting diverse books and diverse authors?
JW: First and foremost, look past your own fear — I think often adults are afraid to talk about race or sexuality or differently abled people or class or whatever the *thing* is that stops them, makes them uncomfortable — So when they pick up a book, that’s the first thing they see — “this book is about a black boy who…” or “this book is about a deaf girl…” or “this book is about a trans boy…” Get rid of the adjectives. Get rid of the qualifiers. Look with your heart — “Bud, Not Buddy” is about a boy who wants to be loved, find his family, have a home. “Pinned” is about a girl wrestler and a boy who is very smart and how their friendship develops. Try to think beyond diversity as you think about diversity. It’s not so hard to do. There are so many go to places to go. Here is a great place to start: http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com
KN: What are you working on next with the We Need Diverse Books Campaign?
JW: Lots of good stuff — I’m on the board but Ilene, Ellen, Lamar, Marieke, Aisha and others are the ones with their boots on the ground — doing all kinds of great work. The website is diversebooks.org.
KN: What are working on next, writing-wise?
JW: I’m taking a bit of a break right now — “Brown Girl Dreaming took a long time.” I’m good with sitting back, hanging with my family and living in the here and now for a while.
Got a question for Jacqueline Woodson yourself? Share it in the comments and maybe I’ll get to ask at tonight’s event. I’ll be tweeting from the signing and speech, just follow @KaraNewhouse.