Talking to Jacqueline Woodson: Best Children's Books of 2018

Seira Wilson on December 13, 2018
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Jacqueline Woodson has been an insanely busy author this year.  She was appointed the National Ambassador of Young People's Literature at the start of 2018, and published both a middle grade novel, Harbor Me, and a picture book, The Day You Begin this fall.  Both of her books are so beautifully written and relevant to kids today, that Woodson also has the distinction of being the only author to have TWO books on our Top 10 Best Children's Books of 2018 list. 

Earlier this year I had a chance to get on the phone with Woodson and ask about her new books, and her work as the National Ambassador:

Seira Wilson: I'll start by asking how it's going as the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature? I know you wanted to put an emphasis on areas in the South that are under-served with books and authors, have you been able to do that yet?

Jacqueline Woodson: I have--I've been to juvenile detention centers, I've been to some prisons, and I've been to a number of Title 1 schools. So I have been able to reach some of the people but that's the thing: the more you reach out, the more work you see that there is to be done.  It's heartbreaking and and also amazing.

SW: I imagine it's a really special experience for the kids that you're visiting and something that will stick with them..

JW: Yeah, and that's great but then you think, this is their right... You have a right to a good public library. You have a right to a classroom library. You have a right to a school library, you have a right to meet authors.  I kind of put the kibosh on going into schools where kids have had, you know, an author a month for their whole lives basically--you see so much disparity in that.  I think that's what makes it heartbreaking: I wish there were more of me to reach people so that I can be the writer walking in the room, the black woman walking in the room, whatever they need me to be. These kids are so amazing and so resilient and I definitely think they're going to be okay—this generation coming up is going to be okay.

SW: Both of your books came out on the same day which is really unusual-- how did that happen?

JW: I think because it's a picture book [The Day You Begin] and a middle grade book [Harbor Me], and we're living in such a trying time when the big question is, how do we keep on moving when there's so many forces trying to say we don't have a right to be here? We don't fit in or we’re "other" in some kind of way.  Both of these books are dealing with that, and the stuff that comes with that, and I think [my publisher] Penguin said, okay, so we need to have a conversation with younger people and middle grade so let’s publish these books at the same time.

SW: The illustrations in The Day You Begin are incredibly beautiful and so perfect for your words--how did you find the illustrator (Rafael López)?

JW: Oh my goodness...I'm so lucky because I get to choose my illustrators, which is really, really nice.  I'll go to the library and sit for hours just looking at books.  But I remember seeing Dream Drum Girl years before and just loving the way that book made me feel.  The writing is beautiful and the illustrations really made me feel some kind of way. And I thought, I would love to do something with Rafael...

When I'm writing, like with The Day You Begin, I never saw those illustrations. I saw the sense of people looking very different and the kind of hope coming through not only the words but the illustrations as well, but I'm not that kind of visual person. So when the illustrations came along I was kind of blown away by them and thought, this is exactly what I want.

SW: When you were writing Harbor Me, what made you choose this particular age--5th & 6th grade--for the characters?

JW: I think it's such an interesting age, when young people are asking all of these questions and really understanding the world in a way that I think adults don't realize.  It really is, to me, where young people are walking on the edge of adulthood. They understand what they're walking toward and they understand their lack of power.  Which is a heartbreaking place to be.

SW: In both of your books you explore being courageous when it comes to sharing our authentic selves with others.  Where do you find courage?

JW:  I don't feel like I have a choice to have it or not have it.  My big thing, of course, is: what do I have to lose? The only thing that's going to be lost is my freedom.  So, from being out as a writer of literature for young people, to talking to our kids about everything from transgender issues to racial profiling, at the end of the day, as scary as it is, it's going to make us all safer and more open.  So I think that's where I get the courage--figuring out what's the safest way to be and then living it.

SW: So you get courage from giving it to others, or wanting to create a safer place...?

JW: Yes, wanting to have it myself, wanting my kids to be able to walk as freely as they can through the world. I don't even think of it as having courage, I think of it as living fully.  And knowing I'm not hurting anyone.

SW: The title of your middle grade novel, Harbor Me, is a great reminder for all of us to take care of one another--how did you come up with the title?

JW: The book was originally called Dream of America because it was all these people struggling for, what was at the time I started writing it, considered the American dream.  I kept that title for a long time, and then I realized that that was not what the book was trying to say. As I wrote and re-wrote I realized that I was talking about something bigger than that dream, which was: how do we take care of each other? How do we harbor each other? And that's when I changed the title.

* The Day You Begin and Harbor Me are both among our editors' picks for the Top 10 best children's books of 2018.


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