Author Jacqueline Woodson listens to silences and history
February 24, 2016 12:00 AM
"Show Way" by Jacqueline Woodson.
“After Tupac & D Foster” by Jacqueline Woodson.
“Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson, is a memoir in verse.
By Julie Hakim Azzam
Just after Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir “Brown Girl Dreaming” won the 2014 National Book Award for young people’s literature, Daniel Handler — aka Lemony Snicket — took the stage and joked how odd it was that Ms. Woodson, an African-American, was allergic to watermelons. Mr. Handler apologized on Twitter. Ms. Woodson published an op-ed in The New York Times that expressed dismay that “a deep and troubling history” of African-Americans was the source of a joke. Making that history come alive for young people, Ms. Woodson wrote, was her mission as a writer.
Where: Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Lecture Hall, Oakland
When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $11; 412-622-8866 or pittsburghlectures.org
“I have an understanding of people who have been underrepresented in literature,” Ms. Woodson said via phone from her home in Brooklyn. She is author of 18 novels for youth and 10 picture books, including novels “After Tupac & D Foster” and “Miracle’s Boys,” and picture books “Show Way” and “Each Kindness.” Much of this work centers on poor black children who struggle with the consequences of poverty, loss and violence. In addition to the National Book Award, she has won the Newbery Honor, the Coretta Scott King Award and the Caldecott Medal.
Ms. Woodson explained that children notice not just overt prejudice, but also a million unspoken assumptions having to do with race and racial hierarchies that lead kids of color to wonder where they belong in this world. It is crucial that children’s literature represent its diverse readership.
“It’s important to hold up mirrors for kids to see their experience is legitimate. Too often those mirrors aren’t there for them,” she said.
Ms. Woodson will speak Sunday at the Carnegie Library in Oakland as part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Kids and Teens series.
“Brown Girl Dreaming” is a memoir in verse; it is about the author’s coming of age as a writer amid a country pulled between Jim Crow and civil rights. Assembling her family history was difficult because her family didn’t want to talk about the past.
“My family wouldn’t talk about enslavement, wouldn’t talk about sharecropping, wouldn’t talk about working in white folks kitchens, because it was such a deeply painful memory,” she said.
Ms. Woodson’s elderly grandmother divulged family details when prompted to speak about old family photographs.
“Brown Girl Dreaming” touches on the author’s Southern grandparents, who partly raised her, her grandmother’s strict Jehovah’s Witnesses beliefs, and moving to New York to join her mother after a long hiatus. Interspersed with these poems is the series “How to Listen,” which are hints on how to write.
After several pregnant pauses in the conversation, Ms. Woodson spoke at length about one in particular: listening to silence.
“So many people are afraid of silence, the whole way we have to make small talk to not be embarrassed by the fact that there’s silence in the room,” she said. “People are afraid of the point of contemplation, the point of memory, sadness or painful stuff. But there’s something special in the silence that is saying something.”
Julie Hakim Azzam teaches at the University of Pittsburgh (@JulieAzzam).
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.