How looking at the world through a child's eyes can change how we treat each other.

October 11, 2022

This week Chris is joined by Jacqueline Woodson. Jacqueline is an American writer of books for adults, children, and adolescents. She is best known for her National Book Award-Winning memoir "Brown Girl Dreaming", and her Newbery Honor-winning titles "After Tupac" and "D Foster, Feathers, and Show Way". Her picture books "The Day You Begin" and "The Year We Learned to Fly" were NY Times Bestsellers. After serving as the Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017, she was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress for 2018–19. She was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 2020. Later that same year, she was named a MacArthur Fellow. Her TED talk "What reading slowly taught me about writing" has been viewed close to 3 million times. Chris speaks to Jacqueline about why she chose writing as a career, her mission to diversify publishing and why she has invested so much time, resources and energy into founding and running Baldwin for the Arts.

- Hello, everyone. I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. And welcome to the next episode of "Here to Help." At Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs. This is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us going all day. And what powers that mission is people. "Here to Help" is a look at how experience, strength, and hope inspires people to want to help others. I am incredibly excited to introduce today's very special guest, Jacqueline Woodson. Jacqueline is an American writer of books for adults, children, and adolescents. She is best known for her National Book Award-winning memoir, "Brown Girl Dreaming"; her Newbery Honor-winning titles "After Tupac and D Foster," "Feathers" and "Show Way." Her picture books "The Day You Begin," and "The Year We Learned to Fly" were "New York Times" best sellers. And after serving as the Young People's Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017, she was named the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature by the Library of Congress for 2018 to 2019. She was awarded the Hans Christian Anderson Medal in 2020. And later that same year, she was named a MacArthur Fellow. Jacqueline, thank you so much for joining me today.

- Thanks for having me, Chris.

- So let's start where we always start these conversations with the first question of, how are you doing today?

- I'm good. I saw I was listed as Jacqueline Wilson, so you saw me lose my mind about that. Jacqueline Wilson is actually a phenomenal British writer of children's books. So hopefully, we'll be able to hire you all a copy editor soon. But I'm good.

- Sorry, apologies about that. But I'm so happy that you're here today. And one of the key themes of "Here to Help" is how formative experiences inspire people to want to do what they do. And so we're going to dive into that. But before we do, I'd love to start off with, just for the folks that maybe are not familiar with your work, what it is that you do. Your work is incredibly wide ranging. It takes multiple forms. It targets readers of different ages. How would you describe the through line? What are the themes and stories and ideas that are most important to you?

- That's always such a great and tough question because there's so much that's important to me. I think at the core of it is the sense that we all have a right to walk through this world safely. And so when I begin to investigate characters and stories, always in the back of my head, I think, that's kind of the moral code I live by, that people have a right to be safe in this world and then how does that translate to the page. And it translates in terms of your first day of school, what that looks like. It translates into coming out of systemic oppression. It translates into a boy whose mom is coming out, all kinds of ways. But at the end of the day, I think my hope is that people are able to do that. And so it comes through in the writing.

- Well let's start with where we are today in 2022. You published two new illustrated books for children: "The World Belonged to Us" and "The Year We Learned to Fly." I'd love to hear you talk about the inspiration for these works and how they fit into those themes. But maybe first, could you read a quick passage for us?

- Sure. This is from "The World Belonged to Us" which is illustrated by Leo Espinosa. Yes, I love his illustrations. "In Brooklyn, in the summer not so long ago, "grownups always had some place to be "or some kind of work to do. "But the minute school ended, us kids were free as air, "free as sun, free as summer." I'm just going to read one more page and then I'll show you the fabulous illustrations. "And even before school ended, "the street got so hot that someone always found a wrench "to turn the hydrant on. "And someone else always found a soup can "to scrape against the curb "till the top and bottom were gone. "And it wasn't a soup can anymore, it was a super shooter. "And our mamas opened the windows and hollered, "'Don't get your school clothes wet.' "But we had to run through the water, book bags and all, "because our teacher's final words had been "'Have a good summer.' "And our only plan on that last day of school "was to take what they said seriously." I just love it 'cause it's so 70s. And it's part of an era in Brooklyn that's gone now. And I think that's what inspired that, "The World Belonged to Us," was looking back. Especially, I started writing it before we went on lockdown. But on lockdown made it feel more important to me, the sense of play and the sense of engagement with other people, and this way of finding your own way of doing it given that you might think you have very little. So I just wanted to go back to that time because even I live here in Brooklyn in Park Slope now. And there is this way in which street games have disappeared, where this deep respect for kids playing in the street has disappeared. I know when I was a kid, you started a game of Double Dutch or hopscotch, and grownups would walk into the street to not disrupt your game. And that doesn't happen anymore. People get really pissed off about kids playing, which is bananas to me. And then "The Year We Learned to Fly" was inspired, I would say first and foremost, by Virginia Hamilton's book "The People Could Fly," which told the African folk tales about enslaved people flying across the water and getting themselves free. And I've always thought about how we as people of the global majority, especially African Americans in this case, have survived in a system where we were, as Audre Lorde said, "not meant to survive." So that idea of our minds saving us from the destruction, even physical destruction happening to our bodies, was always kind of front and center for me. So when I started thinking about young people being trapped in homes, young people just not feeling like they have any kind of escape, young people struggling in all kinds of ways, I started writing "The Year We Learned to Fly" which is about using our minds to get ourselves free and writing to children and for everybody.

- So you have spoken quite a bit about the need to bring diversity into what is a historically white male-dominated publishing industry. And not only are publishers mostly older white men, but most of the authors and the characters in most books are usually white men and boys. Can you talk about what it means for anyone, but especially for kids, to be able to see themselves and their lives reflected in what they read?

- It's important, I think, in terms of seeing their legitimacy in the world. And I always quote Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop who said that "Young people should have mirrors "and windows in their books: "mirrors so that they see reflections "of themselves in the world "and windows so that they see into other worlds." So they see experiences they might not have ever even imagined: a straight kid seeing the experience of a queer kid, a white kid seeing the experience of a biracial kid, rich kids seeing the experience of a poor kid. Like these experiences expand us and make us think outside of our own existence. And I understand the importance of that. And when we have, you know, just a homogenized body of work to choose from, we lose so many people. And by extension, we lose so many readers because people don't see themselves in those pages. And publishing is changing, I think, in terms of what's getting created. There's been an emphasis on more books that pay homage to people of the global majority. We still have a lot of work to do. And I think it's important that we keep pushing to see those narratives on the page. And, of course, we could talk now about how so many of those narratives are getting censored because what people are saying is they make white kids feel lesser than or guilty. And, of course, that's not anyone's intention to make anyone feel lesser than. And I really haven't been to every state and Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska. I have spoken to young people and that has not been the narrative. I think one thing young people have been able to do is find a way to see themselves inside the narrative where adults might think they don't. In the same way that we had to do as kids, as I had to do as a kid when I didn't see Black and Brown people on the page As you know, I read Judy Blume and saw myself in Margaret from "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." Or, you know, I found ways to inch myself in at the same time wondering why I had to do that. But, I think what we're trying to do here is have a diverse body of literature so that everyone can see themselves on the page.

- Yeah, so the idea of the window is particularly interesting to me. So my own personal experience, I went to an all boys, elite prep school from grade seven through 12. I was just talking to some of my classmates. In the six years we were there and theoretically getting, you know, the best education money could buy, we read a single book written by a woman. It was "Pride and Prejudice." We read one book, and this is kind of a stretch, that was not by a North American or European author, it was the Old Testament, and zero books by any authors of color. So I have had to sort of to counteract that and without getting too self-indulgent here, four and a half years ago, I realized that all the books on my bedside table were by white men. And so I set out to basically, originally, I was just going to read women of color and then started expanding it. But I basically have not read a white male author for the last four and a half years. And to me, so getting back to this question about making white people uncomfortable, I felt like I had to actually get okay being uncomfortable learning as a 55-year-old man about the Tulsa massacre for the first time, and all of these things, and reading James Baldwin, Audre Lorde and Tony Morrison. And so, I wonder if actually yes, there's a lot of people for whom these things don't make them uncomfortable. Maybe some people actually need a little bit of discomfort to get a better understanding.

- I think everyone needs discomfort. And it's interesting, Chris, 'cause when you say "best education," I have to put the quotation marks up because it's a private education. It's a different kind of education than the majority are getting, but is it necessarily the best education when you don't emerge enlightened? And I think that it is a conversation that is its own conversation, that is education. And I think that there is a way that... Of course, any good fiction is going to make you uncomfortable. It should make you uncomfortable. You know, I was listening to, I was listening to 'cause I didn't want to read it again, but "The Sun Also Rises" by Hemingway, which is, it was for a long time one of my favorite books to read because I was trying to learn more minimalist language and trying to understand how we write before technology. And, you know, it's completely antisemitic. It's so racist, and that makes me very uncomfortable. And it's an interesting... It's an intriguing story for me. So I think we, as a country, we are very uncomfortable about talking about race, right, white people, I think. People of color talk about it all the time. And we, as people of color, are constantly reading books that make us feel uncomfortable, and know that that's okay. I think for some, discomfort is a new thing. So yeah, and discomfort is a muscle. And the more uncomfortable you become, the stronger it gets and the less uncomfortable you feel. That's how I think about it. Or you get to understand that being uncomfortable is okay. And I feel for me as a writer and a reader... Also, in terms of the Tulsa race massacre, I didn't learn about it until I was in my 20s. And that is something. Because we talk about stories that get silenced, and that's one of them. And thankfully, the world is getting enlightened about not only Tulsa but the many race massacres that happened throughout this country from the period of Reconstruction on all the way up, I think, until the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia in the 70s or 80s. I think it was the 80s. But I do think it's important that... I think it takes work now to have a body of literature that is not diverse, or to have a reading list that's not diverse, right? And I feel like it's almost reactionary at this point. And it's funny 'cause I have a 20-year old and I have a 14-year old. And the first thing I check is their reading list. And if it's not where I think it should be, if it's not representative, then I'm calling somebody and having a conversation, much to their dismay.

- So I'd love to talk a little bit about form. So your work has this set of common themes and things that you're interested in, but it takes so many different forms. So you write poetry and prose, memoir and fiction. You write for children, for young adults and for adult readers. So the question is: What comes first, the story or the form? Do you sort of have an idea and then say, oh, this has to be told a certain way? Or do you say, I want to write for children and then see what comes?

- I don't. I do have an idea, and as I start writing it down, I start seeing, if it's coming more in a poetic form, I start thinking about line breaks. Because as you see with my picture books, the line breaks are there, right. I don't think you can even see that. And they're very intentional. And so I know that if the story is coming in as very visual, then it's most likely going to be a picture book. And then I start revising it so that the text is line by line. Because that's what picture books do. They're like films in that scene by scene, you get the story. In picture books, line by line you get the story. I'm thinking of my book "The Other Side." The first line is, "That summer, "the fence through our town seemed bigger." And you have this idea, you have this vision of a fence in your head. "We lived in a yellow house on one side of it." The next line, "White people lived on the other," which makes you go to the next line. Who's telling me this? Oh, now I know they're not white. But what is it about white people? Where are we? "And mama said, "'Don't climb over that fence when you play.'" So now we see that it's a child talking. "She said it wasn't safe." Now we're like, what wasn't safe about it makes us turn the page. And so, when the ideas are coming to me line by line, and everything I write, I read out loud. I start seeing how much of it is visual, how much I can see. And then I know it's going to be a picture book. When it feels like it's more distant, then I know it's probably going to be for adults. I'm thinking of "Red at the Bone," the first line. "But that evening, there was an orchestra playing." I think that's the first line. And I knew when I came to that line, and that was a lot of rewriting, I knew what I was saying. I knew that this was going to be a story that we're entering in the middle of because of that first word, "But that evening." And I knew there was going to be a lot of story around it. But I didn't yet know all of what that story was going to be. When it's really immediate, I know it's a middle grade book. So even though I have ideas for the story, sometimes the story knows more than you do about what it's trying to say. So I do let that happen, and I do start shaping it accordingly once I have a sense of what it's trying to say and how it's trying to say it. I don't know if that makes any sense, but that's how it happens.

- Absolutely. So I'd love to talk about the fact that you write primarily for children. I was thinking about this. You know, I think as most people become adults, we find ourselves divorced from our younger selves. And it becomes harder and harder over time to see the world through the eyes of a child. And so for those of us that have kids, that sort of brings you back into that worldview. But my girls are now 25 and 26. And you know, that view is fading. So you've been writing and publishing for young readers for over 30 years. I'm curious how you are aware of seeing things differently than the rest of us because of that. And also, how do you see the world of adults through this lens?

- That's such a great question. Well, it was Madeleine L'Engle who said, "When you write, "you should write remembering the child you were, "because the essence of childhood doesn't change." And I truly believe that. And I think for so many adults, adolescence and parts of childhood were too painful to remember. So they've forgotten them, which I think is a travesty because when you go back into that period, there's so much healing that can be done just by turning inward facing it. And for me, writing and making the people who felt like they were losing the heroes, which feels very powerful and empowering to me. So there is so much about childhood I never forgot. It was so funny 'cause I always talk about how I have all these lyrics from commercials and bad openings to TV shows and just so much stuff that I think is junk in my head. But when I sit down to write, sometimes I need it. And then that sense of wanting to belong, never quite feeling like you belong, wanting to do well, wanting to be loved, all of that, those are universal themes. And those are themes that we carry into our, you know, senior years, even into our graves. So for me, I go back to accessing that. And when I'm writing for adults, often, I'm still looking back at childhood but through the adult lens, which is easy to do because here I am an adult. And so with something like "Another Brooklyn," I'm telling the story of four 15-year-old girls who become adults. And I'm looking at it from the perspective of someone who's 30 something. And so I remember 30 something. I don't want to go back to it. I remember being 15. I don't want to go back to it. But still, all of those moments are fresh in my head. All of those years stay with me. And I use a lot, you know, I look at old photographs. I look at poems. I listen to music that takes me back to that period. And it helps me get into the vibe of writing, of writing the moment I'm wanting to write, from the perspective. So I was listening to "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" by Nina Simone, which is a heartbreaking song. And when she sings, I was obviously writing a very sad scene about time passing. But just being able to meditate on that music helps me get to the lyricism and helps me get to the mood that I'm trying to evoke in a particular scene.

- So we have a little bit of background I think now on who you are today. And as I said earlier, I'm particularly interested in how our formative experiences inspire us to become who we are. And in your case, we have this extraordinary roadmap in the form of your 2014 memoir in verse: "Brown Girl Dreaming." So I'd like to spend some time on various aspects of this story. But let me start by just saying how much I love this book. I was completely floored by it. And to some degree, I think the format itself sort of took me by surprise. So it's a memoir in verse. It's an autobiography that's essentially poetry written for young adult readers. To me, reading this story felt like a superhero origin story. 'Cause like we know in the end, you're going to become Jacqueline Woodson, the celebrated author. But you start out as this kid, but not only a kid, but you were a slow reader and you compared yourself to your older and, at least as you thought at the time, smarter sister. And so there's that moment when you get the first composition notebook, it feels like the bite from the radioactive spider. So I'd like to ask you to read a passage from this also, but then I'd love to hear you talk about this origin story. How did you find your voice and identity through the making up of stories and reading slowly and carefully?

- That's such a great metaphor. I never thought of myself as a superhero. I love that. So this is from "Brown Girl Dreaming." And this is "The Selfish Giant." "In the story of 'The Selfish Giant,' "a little boy hugs a giant who has never been hugged before. "The giant falls in love with the boy. "But then one day, the boy disappears. "When he returns, he has scars on his hands and his feet "just like Jesus. "The giant dies and goes to paradise. "The first time my teacher reads the story to the class, "I cry all afternoon, and I'm still crying "when my mother gets home from work that evening. "She doesn't understand "why I want to hear such a sad story again and again "but takes me to the library around the corner when I beg "and helps me find the book to borrow: "'The Selfish Giant' by Oscar Wilde. "I read the story again and again. "Like the giant, I too fall in love with the Jesus boy. "There's something so sweet about him. "I want to be his friend. "Then one day, my teacher asked me to come up front "to read out loud. "But I don't need to bring the book with me. "The story of 'The Selfish Giant' is in my head now, "living there, remembered. "'Every afternoon as they were coming from school, "'the children used to go and play in the giant's garden,' "I tell the class, the whole story flowing out of me "right up to the end when the boy says, "'These are the wounds of love. "'You let me play once in your garden. "'Today, you should come and play. "'Today, you should come with me to my garden, "'which is paradise.' "How did you do that, my classmates ask. "How did you memorize all those words? "But I just shrug not knowing what to say. "How can I explain to anyone "that stories are like air to me? "I breathe them in and let them out over and over again. "Brilliant, my teacher says smiling. "Jackie, that was absolutely beautiful. "And I know now, words are my Tingalayo. "Words are my brilliance."

- Chills. I love that so much. So can you talk about this, how you found your voice? You thought you weren't smart. You thought you weren't a reader. And then you are.

- And I always say to people that you learn to write by reading. I thought of myself as a listener. I thought of myself as someone who loved story. And I wanted to be a writer because I loved early on the physical act of writing. I loved that putting a J-A-C-Q-U-E. Well actually, it was J-A-C-K-I-E at that time together made my name. And there was such a power to seeing that on the page. But I thought because I was such a slow reader that it didn't make sense to say I wanted to be a writer because I just thought you had to be, have this academic brilliance. Because when I was growing up, that was what was served to us on a silver platter, right. The A, the 100%, the academic brilliance of being able to read far above your reading level. And I remember at that time, skipping grades was really big. And all around me, my friends were skipping grades. And, you know, they wanted my sister to skip a grade. My mom's like, "She's not skipping. "I want her to be with her age group." But it was interesting 'cause there was a lot in the ether about being smart. And I never thought I was. And I thought that if you were smart, you can be things like a writer. But when I started getting recognized for my writing, because I did it all the time, I did start thinking that it wouldn't have to just be a hobby of mine. Like I could make this something that I could be able to do. And I really didn't have a backup plan, which helps I think in choosing art as a career. But I think having, being against the backdrop of my sister and my brother who were both academically exceptional was something that I kind of struggled against in thinking about my own self worth as someone who could contribute something to society. But stories, every time I read a story, every time I read "Selfish Giant," which I probably have read 500 times, I still read it, I would say, I want to do that. This is what I want to do. And it wasn't just the physical act of wanting to write. It was the act of making someone else besides myself feel a certain way while at the same time making myself feel that way. Every time I read "The Selfish Giant," I had the same feelings. I felt for the boy. I felt for the giant. I felt the love that they had for each other. So I had such a love for the boy and the giant and the story and the way Oscar Wilde told the story. So I don't remember who illustrated it or any of that, but I truly remember the words. And the same thing with "The Little Match Girl," reading "The Little Match Girl" by Hans Christian Anderson and just wanting to do that. I see this little girl freezing to death and thinking, I don't want that to happen anymore. Like how can I rewrite this story? And so, who knew that that would be writing that was connected to social justice, right, writing that was connected to activism in some way, writing that was connected to a deep moral code. I just knew I wanted to write and tell stories and I wanted everybody to be okay. So getting the recognition and eventually becoming Jacqueline Woodson still surprises me because I think some part of me thinks, how did this happen? And it happened because of love. It happened because I love, love, love what I do.

- Well, I love the idea of reading slowly. I have tried to actually slow down my reading to really appreciate. And I heard an interview with you where you said, something to the effect of, I want more people to read slowly because it takes us a long time to write these books. And I just loved that. So I want to talk a little more about "Brown Girl Dreaming." So it's clearly a story about you finding this voice. But it's got so much going on. It's about family, it's about time. It spans from your birth in 1963 through fifth grade in the mid 70s. It's about place. So you were born in Columbus, Ohio, moved to the South to Greenville, South Carolina, eventually back up North to Brooklyn. And you're clearly not from one place, but of all of these different places. And so I read "Brown Grow Dreaming" earlier this year right before I read Isabel Wilkerson's "The Warmth of Other Suns," her amazing history of The Great Migration. And your life and this story encapsulate this whole epic intergenerational history and make it incredibly and deeply personal, which her work does as well. So "Brown Girl Dreaming" completely shaped my reading of "The Warmth of Other Suns." And then "The Warmth of Other Suns" gave a new dimension to your book. So I'd love to hear you talk just a little bit about the importance of place and home and what it means to you to be part of this larger story.

- Ha. I was talking to, in conversation last night at the Brooklyn Book Fest with Esmeralda Santiago who wrote, "When I Was Puerto Rican" among other books. And we were talking about that idea of home. Because when I was a kid, I still do it now, but my mom and grandmother would always say, "We're going home." We had been living in New York for many, many years, but home was always Greenville, South Carolina. And that idea of Brooklyn for me being home because it was what I had known for a long time by that point. But also, it just made sense that whenever we talked about South Carolina, we said we're going home. And then, growing up in both spaces, because we would go down South for the summer until my grandfather died and my grandmother moved to New York, I started realizing that there was a bit of an unbelonging to both places, and a bit of a longing for the other place when I was in the other place. Not so much Ohio, 'cause I left Ohio when I was two months old. I mean, I go back more now because my dad is there. And in "Brown Girl Dreaming," I end the memoir when I'm around 11. And my mom and dad got back together when I was 14, 13, 14. And so then, the Ohio landscape really opened up to me in terms of my Woodson relatives and all of that. But it was always kind of other in the history of my places of belonging slash unbelonging. But even though I say I'm a Buckeye to the bone, like a part of me owns being a Buckeye, but I don't know it the way I know South Carolina and New York. And I think that at the end of the book, I talk about the many worlds. I talk about, you know, when there are many worlds, you can choose which one you walk into each day. And I think about that: the world of Greenville, the world of Brooklyn, the world of growing up Jehovah's Witness and Muslim and having all of these different belief systems, the world of growing up in a multiracial family. And I think that if I hadn't had all those worlds, if I hadn't had all that belonging and unbelonging, because even in the unbelonging there was always this deep love that I didn't understand until I started writing "Brown Girl Dreaming." Because that love was there, because that sense of you have a right to be wherever you are-ness was there, it was okay to have those feelings. And with those feelings I was able to write 30 something books about the many worlds and incorporate many worlds and many characters. So coming to that understanding was just kind of like an exhale for me. And I was listening to, I was reading Kiese Layman's "Heavy," which is an amazing memoir. And in it, he was talking about how so many... No, I'm sorry; it wasn't Kiese. I was listening to the podcast, Debatable, about the debate team from Emporia College, the two black gay men who went on to win the debate. And he was talking about how the people in his neighborhood hadn't expanded more than a 40-block radius, like kids hadn't gone outside of world. And I consider myself someone as a kid who hadn't traveled a lot. But I had left my neighborhood to go to Greenville and left Greenville to come back to New York. Within each of those spaces, it was a small space, right. Living in Bushwick, I didn't go much outside of Bushwick. Living in Nickeltown in Greenville, I didn't go much outside of Nickeltown. But I did go from Brooklyn to South Carolina. And that in and of itself was an expansion. And it made me more thoughtful, I think. Having the home of two religions made me think more thoughtfully and more expansively about people's belief systems. And I always think of, it was Walt Whitman who said, "Are you not concerning God?" And it was like, this is what I leave alone. Like you have your belief, I'm not arguing with it. I will never argue with the thing you need to help you survive. But I definitely have many senses of home. Like still, I haven't been back to Greenville in about three or four years. But it's still, whenever I go there, it's like I know this place deeply. And I didn't even know until I was older that my family was part of The Great Migration. Because The Great Migration wasn't taught in schools in that way. I knew we came from the South. Many people I knew in my neighborhood came from the South or they came from Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Santo Domingo. And people had come to this place to try to find a new home. But I didn't know we were part of that revolution until I was older. And I think that matters. I think knowing that the way you move changed history is something huge for young people to have, you know, in their backpacks, just in their backpacks of pride just because it gives them a sense of how they, or have already in their DNA, have an impact on this country. But Isabel Wilkerson's book, I can't read that enough either 'cause it's just so beautifully written and just makes me think about the struggle and, again, the love. There's so much love in that book.

- So we talked a little bit about form before. But the one thing that really hit me in, you know, that sort of concept there is in reading "Brown Girl Dreaming" as a reader, because it's in verse, there's both this sort of economy of language, so you're very sort of careful in word choice and the cadence and the lyricism, but it's also the episodic nature of it. It actually feels like memories from childhood, right. We can't look back at childhood and sort of see an entire linear progression in that same way. And so I don't know if that's just how it came to you, but I'd say as a reader, it felt like remembering someone else's childhood. And it was an incredibly powerful structure for that.

- Yes, exactly, and that's why it's in verse, right. Because that's how memory comes to you, excuse me, as these small moments. Memory comes as these small moments with all of this white space around it, right, all of this unknown, this unremembered. And even now when I see a memoir that's not written in verse, I'm like: How did they remember all that in that linear fashion? So I kind of side eye a little bit. But it's the only way that felt true to the construction of that memoir. I remember this moment, I was told this moment, and piecing them together and then rewriting and to understand the narrative arc of my life felt like the most honest way. And it's interesting, I meant to say this earlier. So much of the fan mail that surprised me came from older white men, I mean, white men in their 70s who had played baseball. My grandfather in Ohio was a baseball coach, and he had been their coach. And they're like, "My granddaughter gave me this book "and I saw that Hope Woodson was in it. "And I'm wondering if Hope Woodson "is the Hope Woodson of Nelsonville, Ohio." White boys between the ages of 11 and 13 who were like, "I see myself in this book." And I'm like: Where? But who am I to question? And a lot of older people because it was a time they knew. You know, they came of age the same time I came of age. And then, Brown girls. And when I say Brown girls, I remember a group of girls from I think they were from Mumbai but had written me. Their group was reading it, their group of Brown Indian girls were reading it. And so it's so interesting the way when you have something that's deeply specific is that how universal, how people all find some parts of themselves in it, which is a beautiful thing.

- So I'd like to jump ahead now and talk a little bit about recognition. So at the very start, I rattled off a list of honors and awards, which was an extremely edited down list of the many accolades you've received. If anyone wants to go and look at Jacqueline's Wikipedia page, you can see a full list there. But just to rattle off a little bit more, it includes winning the Coretta Scott King Award three times, four Newberry Honors, the Langston Hughes Medal, the National Book Award, the Hans Christian Anderson Medal, and a MacArthur Fellowship. So I want to dig into some of those in a little detail. But let me start by asking: What does this kind of recognition mean to you? And what do you think it means to others? And how embarrassing is it to read off the entire list?

- I have to tell you, even behind me, I have a bunch of my awards on the wall behind me. And they have always been behind me because as I'm sitting at my desk writing, I don't want to look up and see awards on my desk in front of me. I have a picture of me, Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Chris Myers who are my writing-children's-book-people posse. And this is when I look up and smile and remember why and who's walking with me through this world doing this work. And then the pandemic hit, and Zoom came, and suddenly this is my backdrop, right. And so I can't turn my desk around because there's a bench there and I can't work on that. So at one point, I had it completely blurred out, but I hate the way my face kind of moved in and out of the blurriness. So all that to say the awards are for work that I have done, not for the work I'm trying to do and want to continue doing. I had no idea that I would write this many books. I had no idea that this many people would read it and understand what I'm trying to do. And it feels great. It feels great. I think in that way, I'm super shy and don't let... I had never thought the attention would be on Jacqueline Woodson. I had always thought it would be on the books. And it is, the awards are for the books. But you do have to often go and speak about it and hear people say things about you and your work that the part of me that was always raised to be super, super humble is like: No, no, no, let's talk about you. But the awards mean that the books get into the hands of the people who need them, because they get a certain amount of legitimacy that says: This book is okay to have in a classroom. This book is okay to buy for your kid. And that matters because at the end of the day, the idea of some person, young or old, who needs to see some part of themself on the page and has found it because of something I wrote, for me, that's the biggest award. You can't hang that on the wall. You can't cash that check or put that medal around your neck. That's just something that lives inside of you.

- So among the various sort of areas of recognition here, you served as the Young People's Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017, and were then named the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature by the Library of Congress for 2018 to 2019. How did you utilize those platforms?

- Oh man. When I was the Young people's Poet Laureate, I think that part of me, the first half of it was getting over imposter syndrome because I was scared of poetry for so long. And I visited a lot of schools talking about poetry. I don't remember being YPPL as much as I remember being National Ambassador for Young People's Literature because I got to choose my platform. And that platform was reading equals hope times change. You know, when you read, you get hopeful. And hope allows you to create change. I think that any activist will tell you that that's the first thing you have to have is hope that this change can happen. And reading is a thing that enlightens and allows you to have that kind of hope and that kind of desire for change. At least, that's what happens with me. And I wanted to go specifically to Title I schools. So I got to choose where I went. And I went to Title I schools, and I went to places of incarceration. So I went to a lot of detention centers. I went to prisons. And I wanted to go where people had not met a living author. And going into those spaces, and I do think I had this idea I'd go in there and they'd be like, "This is so great. "You know, we've never met a living author "and let's talk about everything." And I think the person who was changed the most by those experiences was me. And just in that, I think I really started thinking deeply about the prison industrial complex and all that we're losing and about these young people who have so much to say and have lost those chances to say it, so much talent. So I remember going to this one detention center where it was all girls. And I was reading "Visiting Day," which is the story of a girl who goes to visit her dad in prison. And a bunch of the girls were talking about themselves being young and visiting people they loved in prison. And this one girl who was about 16 or 17 said, "You know, the thing I look forward to the most "is when my daughter comes to visit me." And she had a five-month-old daughter. And she just started crying and had to leave the room. And it just made me think about the many ways people are having to exist in this country, especially young people. I went to this other place in Alabama that was predominantly white, and boys. And when I was leaving, the white boys gave me the white power sign. They're like: "White power forever." It was like, Okay to you. And I just thought, this is all they have. You know, this is what they have. They have their sense of white supremacy, which, obviously, they don't have. You know, they have no power. And so I understand their need for... And for me, that was a way of saying, see me. Like look, I have something too. And so, you can't get angry. I can't feel like it's a failure. For me, it felt like: okay, we'll show you some part of ourselves. You shared you. And they were lovely. I mean it wasn't in rage or anything. They were just like, here's what we have. So I do think going, it was exhausting. It was emotionally exhausting. I was on the road for almost a year 'cause there's so many Title I schools. There are so many schools that are in need of funding. There are so many juvenile detention centers. There's so many prisons. And I was glad to pass it on to Jason Reynolds, who's doing a phenomenal job.

- So in 2020, you were awarded what is, arguably, one of the most prestigious honors in the world, the MacArthur Genius Award and Fellowship. And so, you explained that you want to use the award money to extend the residency program you founded for people of color. Can you talk about Baldwin for the Arts and what that means?

- Yeah, so Baldwin for the Arts is a residency for, as you said, people of color, people of the global majority actually. So there are native people coming through there. You know, we have a woman from Berlin. And it's basically a place to go and create art. Right now, people have week long residencies where we pay for their travel, their food, and give 'em a quiet place to just work and create. And it's all art mediums, including ones we don't know yet because we don't want to limit people. And it's been phenomenal. I mean, the website is And we've had a lot of artists come through this year. We have 28 artists coming between October and June. And it's a lot of work. I never thought a nonprofit would be this much work. I had no idea. I really did, I was such a neophyte going in. But one thing I do is try to have a meal with the artists that come through and sitting down and listening to artists who are just starting out. I mean, artists of all ages just starting out. To hear their journey to art, it makes it worthwhile. You know, the MacArthur was such a surprise. It was the first time I got an award. And they had called a couple of times and I didn't recognize the number. And you have no idea this call is coming, like none. Like you don't apply, you don't know who nominates, none. And I think Virginia Hamilton might have been the last children's book writer or Angela Johnson, I'm not sure. So I didn't take the call the first two times. And then I picked it up, and I was just coming back from grocery shopping. And I literally got knocked off my feet. I literally sat down in the chair when she said: "This is so-and-so from the MacArthur Foundation." And I knew when she said MacArthur Foundation, there was no other reason MacArthur would be calling me. So it was the first time out of hundreds of awards that I was stunned out of being. And it's also unexpected money, right. So, of course, it's like the idea of you have to give it away to keep it is our way of thinking. And I think that I've been so... I've worked hard and I've gotten a lot of reward for the work as an artist. And other artists deserve it too. And many of my rewards have come from being in the right place, knowing the right people, doing the right work. And the hope is to give that kind of access to others.

- So before we wind down here, can I ask: Is there anything that you're working on now, anything that we have to look forward to that you can talk about?

- I guess I could talk about, I just finished the screenplay for "Red at the Bone" that Hillman Grad is doing. I'm excited about that. I finished it a while ago, but hopefully we'll start preproduction soon. I wrote a screenplay about Ida B. Wells that I'm excited about. And I'm finishing up a middle grade book. And I'm kind of in the middle of my next adult book. So I'm working on a couple of things.

- That's wonderful. Well, super excited to see what comes next. And as we close, I always ask the same question at the end. And I'm really interested to hear your perspective. And the final question that I always ask is: Given everything that's going on in the world, and especially what we've all been through over the last few years, what leaves you optimistic for the future?

- I think that's such a great question. I'm so glad you ask that, always ask that. I think the fact that I woke up this morning, I think that that brings me such optimism. Young people, even in their struggle, have kept me optimistic. And I think the thing that makes me most optimistic is their rage and what they're going to do with that rage and what they are doing with that rage. I just watch them. I'm like: Whatever you all need, I got you. So that makes me really optimistic. I'm glad that they can take what we're presenting them with and say: "You know, not on our watch. "You know, our grandkids are not going to have to do this." So that makes me happy. That makes me think they're going to be okay.

- Well, Jacqueline Woodson, thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you for sharing your experience and thank you for everything you do to help brighten the world and give people new windows and mirrors.

- Oh, thank you, Chris. And thanks for your work. I really loved talking to you.