Author Jacqueline Woodson On The Power Of Storytelling

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Jacqueline Woodson does a reading on stage during the 2017 Vulture Festival at Milk Studios on May 21, 2017 in New York City. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Vulture Festival)
Jacqueline Woodson does a reading on stage during the 2017 Vulture Festival at Milk Studios on May 21, 2017 in New York City. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Vulture Festival)

Children’s book author Jacqueline Woodson has written over 30 books, often focused on race and identity in America. We get her take on the current moment and talk about the never-ending power of story.


Jacqueline Woodson, author of over thirty books, including the Newbery Award-winning "Feathers" and "After Tupac and D Foster," and the forthcoming book "Before the Ever After." Former national ambassador for young people's literature, 2018-2019. 2020 Hans Christian Andersen award recipient. (@JackieWoodson)

Interview Highlights

On the history of racism in America

Jacqueline Woodson: “We have to understand that nothing happening ever happens in a bubble. It's all part of something that happened before. And I think that helps us understand that this is not new. And so I think kids don't always get a lot of the truth about American history in schools and at their dinner tables. And I wanted to break it down so that they could see themselves inside this history and understand how we got to this place. So I'm always thinking about the historical perspective of whatever moment we’re in. And the way history tends to repeat itself. And in order to break that cycle, we have to know the past.

On teaching kids this history of racism 

Jacqueline Woodson: “For me, the key is survival. And I think about how people of color, primarily Black and brown folks came here. And we weren't meant to survive. We were meant to work until we died. Produce other enslaved people who worked until they died. We weren't meant to become teachers and lawyers and presidents and writers … all the ways that we exist in the world.

"And just knowing that small bit that we have inside of us, this survival mechanism is really important. And I think that's really important for all people to know about themselves as a means of like, yeah, we're in a moment. And we can move through this moment because people have moved through moments similar or worse before. This is not the first pandemic. This is not the first revolution. This is not the first civil rights movement. And knowing that, yeah, it's hard. It's a struggle and the struggle continues. And each time we become a little better off because of the struggle.”

How do we include white children in anti-racist discussions?

Jacqueline Woodson: “I think everyone needs to be talking about race. And I remember as a kid ... people called it [slavery]. I say enslavement because we weren't slaves. We were enslaved. And to call people slaves takes the onus off the people who wanted to own Black and brown bodies. So, I mean, starting with talking about the history of enslavement and white folks wanting to own Black and brown bodies. And really having these conversations with your kids about the truth, about what white supremacy is and looks like and the different roles that people play in it.

"And these are hard conversations to have. And I don't think you have to have them alone because the books are out there. You know, White Fragility is a great book to read. There's so many books that can help people have the conversations with their young people. And one thing they must not do is center Black and brown folks as victims. I think that's the most dangerous thing you can do as a white person, as a white parent, because that makes us seem lesser then. That makes us seem like other.

"I mean, you have to have honest conversations about why this system is in place as it is. And, you know, I'm always questioning people who live in very homogeneous communities and don't even have a Black friend they can ask a question to. Or a brown friend, or a queer friend, like, what is it that makes us live inside certain bubbles? So I think really starting to question that, really starting to talk at dinner. And if you have nothing to say, find a book to talk about that talks about these issues.”

What's hopeful about this moment?

Jacqueline Woodson: “I think there is a chance for more. There's gathering. I mean, even the family gathering, getting around the table and having thoughtful conversations with your family. I think in terms of even engaging deeper via Zoom. Knowing that when you see that person, you're seeing inside their house, you're seeing inside their living room, their bedroom. And you have another kind of understanding. I think people are reading more, people are talking more. And even the marches in New York, you know, people are heading to the marches and being allies and doing the work that needs to be done.”

From The Reading List

The New York Times: "Jacqueline Woodson Transformed Children’s Literature. Now She’s Writing for Herself." — "When Jacqueline Woodson’s mother died, late in the summer of 2009, the writer and her siblings had to sort out what to do with the Brooklyn building where they spent much of their childhoods. Their mother bought a three-story townhouse in the Bushwick neighborhood decades earlier, for only $30,000, and by the time she died, a development boom was spilling over from neighboring Williamsburg, driving up values and driving out residents. But Woodson did not find herself dealing with a readily lucrative asset: Because of predatory lending that targeted black homeowners, she says, her mother died owing $300,000, and the house was in foreclosure. 'My siblings and I are like, "Let’s just short-sell it; let’s just dump it,"' Woodson says. But the more she visited the building — traveling across the borough from the Park Slope townhouse she shares with her partner and their two children — the more she felt herself wanting to hold on to her childhood home, one of the first places she lived in Brooklyn after moving from Greenville, S.C., at 7."

Publisher's Weekly: "#KidLit Rally for Black Lives Draws Wide Viewership" — "The recent killing of George Floyd and the widespread protests in response to police brutality remain uppermost on the minds of a lot of members of the children’s book community, if the overwhelming success of last Thursday evening’s #KidLitRally4BlackLives is any indication. The two-hour event ... aimed to both empower and educate children about race and racism and provide a safe space for conversations about how parents and teachers can speak with young people about current events."

Marie Claire: "Jacqueline Woodson's Red At The Bone Takes On Race, Sexuality, and Class" — "'But that afternoon there was an orchestra playing,' begins Jacqueline Woodson's newest novel, Red at the Bone, out September 17. Traversing time and space, Red at the Bone tells the story of a Brooklyn family rocked by their teenage daughter Iris’s pregnancy. Through Iris, her parents Po’ Boy and Sabe, her ex-boyfriend Aubrey, and their daughter Melody, Woodson, 56, explores each character’s experience navigating class, gender, and sexuality. Its events span 100 years, starting with the 1921 Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where white residents attacked black business owners."

The New York Times: "What Is Freedom? Teaching Kids Philosophy in a Pandemic" — "'We don’t really need "going to school,"' Ella Wagar, a 10-year-old from Seattle, told her online peers during a recent Zoom session. 'What we really do need are friends. If you don’t have friends, it sucks; you play alone, you eat alone.'”

This program aired on June 29, 2020.


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Hilary McQuilkin Producer, On Point
Hilary McQuilkin is a producer for On Point.


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Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.



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