Interview with Jacqueline Woodson, 2014 National Book Award Winner, Young People's Literature

Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming

Nancy Paulsen Books/ Penguin Group (USA)

Interviewed by Adina Talve-Goodman

Photo credit: Marty Umans

Adina Talve-Goodman: In Brown Girl Dreaming, you say multiple times that this book is memory. How did you decide which of your memories to include and why did you decide to tell this story now? Was there something that prompted your desire to do this research into your past?

Jacqueline Woodson: In writing this book, I was trying to answer the question "How did I become a writer?"  I know that artists don't just 'happen', that we're years and generations in the making.  I wanted to understand more about how I came to this place of so many books, of thinking very deeply about the world across lines of race, gender, economic class and sexuality.  And then my mom died suddenly and more than anything, I wanted to understand who she was before she was my mom.  I suddenly realized the people who had the answers were getting old, dying, becoming ancestors. So I started asking questions. There is so much of my past I have never forgotten but the memories I chose to put down are the ones that give me―and by extension, my reader―a clearer understanding of who and why I am.

ATG: Many of your books seem to draw from your own life or have autobiographical elements but Brown Girl Dreaming is your first purely autobiographical work. Was your writing process different with writing nonfiction as opposed to fiction? How?

JW: I always say that all of my books are emotionally autobiographical but only a few are physically autobiographical or at least, inspired by some part of my life.  With Brown Girl Dreaming, the book was a very emotional and physical autobiography―I had to really go back to the places of my childhood and live there again to get this story on the page.  I spent hours and hours sitting with memory―some of them not always happy ones, some of them a mixture of deep sadness and absolute joy.  When I'm writing fiction, I'm sitting with characters I'm just beginning to imagine.  With autobiography, I am with real people from long ago.  And I loved these people so I wanted to bring that love to the page.  With characters, I grow to love them as they're developed.  With real people, since I already love them, I have to really show why I do, show the reader that person through the truth of who that person was―no making up stuff allowed the way it is with characters.  

A good example is my grandfather, Daddy. He was flawed and he was amazing.  He was human.  I adored him.  But how do I show this regular guy to the world so that the world can love him too?  That's about choosing the right memories to clearly set him down on the page.  Another example is my mom.  I could have shown a woman who left her kids and moved to New York.  But the truth was/is more nuanced than that―so again, I had to show a woman making choices in the late 60s and the impact of those choices and how those choices are something a mother in Iowa who has never left her children can understand just as well as a foster kid in Virginia and a child with two parents in New York City in 2014.  And again, that's about choosing the right memory.  I sat with pictures of my relatives, listened to old stories that I've heard many, many times, made phone calls, researched everything—until I felt I had put my childhood on the page.

ATG: Brown Girl Dreaming is a middle grade book but your work ranges from picture books to young adult. Do you have a favorite age to write for? Why?

JW: I love them all and while Brown Girl Dreaming is targeted at middle graders, like so many books written with young people in mind, it is a book that anyone can find themselves inside of.

ATG: What are you working on now?

JW: Being in the here and now for my children and partner.  Enjoying autumn.  Living each day completely humbled and grateful for what writing Brown Girl Dreaming has taught me.

Adina Talve-Goodman is the managing editor of both One Story and One Teen Story.