A Birthday Letter to Jacqueline Woodson
By: Kate Lechtenberg
Dear Jacqueline Woodson,
I’m so happy to celebrate your birthday with you today, and so are my two kids, my students, and my colleagues in the worlds of children’s, young adult, and adult literature! Thank you for your books, your voice, and all the ways that you elevate the experiences of youth, particularly youth of color.
Like your fellow writer Nic Stone, I discovered your books as an adult, and I first encountered young adult books in my work as a librarian, sharing If You Come Softly and The Dear One with my eighth and ninth readers. Sometimes they balked when they saw that some of your books were published “way back in the 1900s,” but as one reader said after she caught the Jacqueline Woodson bug, “her books are kinda timeless, you know?” Some of them liked your books because they were short—you were a frequent feature on my omnipresent “Quick Reads” display—but all of them liked your books because they were true. “Not really true,” one eighth grader told me, “but they feel true.”
The presence of truth, that feeling of truth, is one of the qualities that I think all banned and challenged books share. In preparation for writing this letter, I started searching online for which of your books have been been banned or challenged, and while I quickly found references to the Danville, Illinois, correctional facility’s banning of your picture book Visiting Day and unspecified descriptions of Brown Girl Dreaming as a banned book, I quickly stopped searching. It’s the truth that attracts challenges and bans, and since all your books are vividly evocative of contemporary times, people, and places, someone will be able to find a reason to object to your work.
Two years ago, my daughter was struggling to find books she enjoyed, and so I spread out all your books on her bed. She surprised me by picking Miracle’s Boys—normally she goes for romance—and she gave it her highest praise: “I wanted it to keep going. I want another book!” Then, after we saw you speak in Iowa City, I bought her a copy of Brown Girl Dreaming, and she offered more high praise: “I’ve never read a book like that. Poems, and memories.” My daughter, the child of a white Iowa farm girl and a Black Senegalese Muslim city boy, calls herself brown and mixed, Senegalese and American, and caught between multiple worlds—not in the same ways that you are, but in some clear sister sense.
After hearing you speak in Iowa City, my son read The Day You Begin and immediately recognized himself in those moments of fear that spring up when entering a room in some form of difference. Seeing his brown self in books is so important to him, and we quickly found more of your books, like Show Way, Each Kindness, and This is the Rope. Now, as he gets older, I think of him as I listen to the audiobook of Harbor Me and savor your conversation with your son at the end, when he talks about his love of Jason Reynolds and his own powerful critical consciousness. This year, my son has been obsessed with Kwame Alexander and Torrey Maldonado; they feed his own critical eye, and I look forward to introducing him to your novels soon as well.
Recently, I’ve been captivated by your adult fiction. Three years ago, I read Another Brooklyn in one sitting, waking as if from a dream afterward. The colors and moods and shapes and voices of Brooklyn, of the four young women and the stories across time and space inspired me to add an author study to my young adult class, inviting aspiring teachers to read Harbor Me, a young adult book of their choosing, and Another Brooklyn so that we could talk about the different ways you approach writing about youth for different audiences. We loved discussing the way that you honor the voice of youth in different ways as you write for children, teens, and adults.
After months of waiting my turn for a library copy of your newest book Red at the Bone, I experienced your beautiful depiction of dream-like movement between past and present, between self and family, self and friend, self and other once again. Congratulations on being nominated for the NAACP Image Award and for the widespread praise, captured here by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Red at the Bone made me think about how parenting paths are forged by identity, personality, ambition, belief, and family. Every parent, in their own way, fights for their children—even if we don’t agree with the ways they choose. In your Washington Post interview about banned books, you talk about the notion of protection and your own changing approaches to your childrens’ reading choices. I, too, struggle with my differing roles of mother, educator, and intellectual freedom supporter, and I appreciated the way that you communicate your convictions while honoring the different truths and personal complexities that come along with parenting.
I look forward to seeing you again soon at the Des Moines Public Library in May. (One small warning: you might find that some Iowa readers will have noticed the impossible presence 7 Elevens in the Iowa setting of Beyond a Meth Moon, so I’d be prepared with a response.) I’ll be there with my kids, and I look forward to the new questions and challenges that your words always bring me as a white reader, woman, mother, and citizen.
Thank you for your contributions to the world of literature and your support of reading,
Kate Lechtenberg earned a doctoral degree from the University of Iowa’s College of Education, where her research focused on how teachers select, frame, and facilitate discussions about controversial issues. She teaches courses in young adult and children’s literature, collection development, and critical literacy at the University of Iowa. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.