Having written 30 books, and won 40-plus literary awards, Jacqueline Woodson feels like she finally has something to say. Woodson visited Memphis recently to talk about her newest book, Brown Girl Dreaming. Not only a prolific author, Woodson is a gifted storyteller. She recited her picture book, The Other Side, by memory for an audience at the Booksellers at Laurelwood, saying she’s memorized many of her books so she doesn’t have to carry them with her.
Climbing the short list for the National Book Award and Newberry Award, Brown Girl Dreaming chronicles Woodson’s early life in Greenville, North Carolina, and New York City. Growing up during segregation and Jim Crow laws, her family followed the great migration north, when African Americans began looking for more opportunity.
The 51-year-old felt inspired to write her memoir in verse after the sudden death of her mother. Grieving her loss, Woodson found herself with many questions she never had the opportunity to ask her mother. She began to research her family history and what she unearthed was colorful beyond words. Writing her memoir in verse would entail traveling to Columbus, Ohio, her city of birth, and spending several years researching history as she remembered it.
Roots of her writing
Woodson learned at an early age that books don’t always have happy endings. After reading The Selfish Giant, by Oscar Wilde, a story about an ogre that undergoes a metamorphosis of the spirit, she learned how to have empathy for others from the safety of her classroom. Today this still rings true in her books.
“Happiness does not have to come at the end, but hope has to come somewhere in the story,” she says. Inspired to write by books such as The Little Match Girl, reading and writing has not always come easy. Dwarfed by her brother and sister’s giftedness, Woodson struggled, living in the shadow of their academic excellence. Reading for her was difficult, particularly fluency. “We all have gifts. My teachers felt I wasn’t reading fast enough. I had a brilliance for writing that was not being nurtured,” she explains. It wasn’t until she received her first composition notebook and could write her name, that she felt she had an expertise of her own.
Growing up, her mother often scolded Woodson for telling stories, so a teacher once told her, “Write them down, because then it is only fiction.” It wasn’t until the fifth grade that a teacher finally encouraged her to write, and she has been writing ever since. When asked where the ideas for her stories come from, she responds, “I don’t know. I just know I’ve always been telling them. I never know where my stories are going when I write them, I just begin to write.”
Surprises along the way
With the extent of her family research, it would take Woodson three and half years to write Brown Girl Dreaming. She discovered her brother suffered from lead poisoning as a young child, and that her great-great grandfather fought in the Civil War. He is honored at the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Her greatest fear in writing the memoir was revealing her brother’s illness. “My brother’s illness with lead poisoning was never really talked about. I had to write about it in a way that would make my brother feel safe.”
On September 15, as part of Turning Pages, A Memphis City-Wide Read, Booksellers at Laurelwood started a book drive to put at least one copy of Brown Girl Dreaming into every local school library. Believing books can invoke powerful change in the lives of young and old alike, the book drive strives to empower readers of all ages to tell and write their own stories. • Copies of Brown Girl Dreaming may be purchased at Booksellers; the store will donate them to school libraries on your behalf.
Collierville School librarian Jennifer Boren has worked in education for 13 years. She aspires to one day to add published novelist to her resume. Read her work at gracingmemphis.com.