By Jodie Shull
Brown Girl in Brooklyn
Jacqueline Woodson came to Vroman’s Books in Pasadena last month to talk about her new novel Another Brooklyn. It always amazes me when a literary idol of mine appears right there in that small space full of folding chairs and I can spend a quiet evening in their company. Jackie Woodson is a 2014 National Book Award winner for her childhood memoir-in-verse Brown Girl Dreaming, a New York Times bestseller, which also won a Newbery Honor Medal, Coretta Scott King Award, and NAACP Image Award that year.
Known for her extensive contribution to African-American literature for children and young adults, Woodson was appointed the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate for 2015-2017. There isn’t a children’s book award she hasn’t received or been nominated for, and like most superstars of the children’s book world, she is modest, generous, humorous and devoted to creating books that matter for kids.
Another Brooklyn is a departure for her because it’s a novel for adults. Woodson explained that while she was writing Brown Girl Dreaming about growing up in South Carolina and New York in the 1960s and 1970s, she jogged loose memories about the places she had lived in Bushwick, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. She decided to write a history of Bushwick, a biography of a true place, and created a fiction narrative about four girls coming of age in that setting. The emergence ofAnother Brooklyn is a benefit of Woodson’s habit of writing more than one book at a time. She had insights while writing Brown Girl Dreaming that “unlocked” Another Brooklyn.
So what is the difference between Young Adult and Adult categories? According to Woodson, publishers decide how to market a given story. It’s about “time,” she says. Even though Another Brooklyn is the story of four teenage friends, it’s narrated by an adult looking back in time, a perspective that wouldn’t be of interest to a teen reader. “Young people want a young narrator,” says Woodson, “telling their story in the moment.” In her Young Adult books, her narrator is usually not older than 16.
Writers for young people don’t need to stay away from complex, troubling subjects. Quite the opposite. Readers understand things at the level of their life experience. As a child, Woodson says she read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and thought the story had a happy ending. Reading the book again as an adult, Woodson saw the layers of meaning that she couldn’t perceive as a child. It’s these layers of meaning that allow Woodson to present the tough but necessary subjects that sometimes get her books removed from school library shelves. Woodson cited a poem about tobacco from Brown Girl Dreaming as an example of “just how subversive authors who write for young people actually are.”
Jackie Woodson struggled with reading as a child. When she found a copy of John Steptoe’s picture book Stevie in the library, she first discovered a child who looked like her on the pages of a book and began to dream of telling her own stories. “My love of stories inspired and stayed with me,” she says, “creating the first sparks of the writer I was to become.” Fast forward some forty years, and Woodson is signing copies of her 19th book for a warm circle of admirers at Vroman’s. She writes “with so much love” in my copy of Another Brooklyn. That and her beautiful wide smile let me feel the true secret of her success.
Late breaking news: Jacqueline Woodson's Another Brooklyn was just listed as a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award.