“I Believe in Brooklyn”: At Home with Jacqueline Woodson

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Jacqueline Woodson lives in a beautiful house on a beautiful block in Park Slope. She has a big, shaggy dog, Toffee, and a bright kitchen that opens onto a deck and backyard. There are books everywhere, of course: Jennifer Mathieu’s The Truth About Alice, Anya Ulinich’s Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen. On the couch there is an embroidered pillow bearing the face of a young, Jackson 5-era Michael Jackson. On the walls, art by Sophie Blackall; a photo of Obama with Woodson’s son, Jackson-Leroi; an official City of New York photograph of her house in the 1940s; a framed set of reparation dollars from poet Nick Flynn with a handwritten inscription, “We’re so sorry.”

Woodson is making coffee. She steams milk on the stove, whipping it into a froth with a delicate little instrument whose purpose I had never known before. I am sitting at a broad farmhouse table in the middle of the room looking at the tall glass cabinets, the refrigerator full of neatly labeled tupperware, the impossibly high ceilings. It feels like I’ve walked into a very Brooklyn fairy tale.

“I’m 52,” Woodson says from the stove. At my request, she’s doing the math of how many books she’s written in how many years.

Jane, the photographer, cries out in surprise: “You can’t be 52!”

Woodson looks so much younger, Jane says. Woodson looks so good.

And yet: The answer is 31 books. In 25 years, Woodson has written 31 books. She has also won about as many awards, if not more. Chief among them: the National Book Award, the Caldecott Medal, the Newbery Honor Medal, the Coretta Scott King Award, Young Adult Library Services Association’s Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement, the American Library Association’s Notable Book designation, the Parents’ Choice Award. This summer the Poetry Foundation named her the Young People’s Poet Laureate.

There’s something actually nourishing about these facts, presented in the context of this beautiful, homey home. Of course Jacqueline Woodson has written so much, won so much, and lives so well. “Of course.” Also, of course, no lives are static or uncomplicated, but for this one afternoon in this one place the world seems as if it makes sense, as if it is just.

“My daughter is 13,” Woodson says. She’s doing another math problem—now the solution is when she first bought the house. “We moved in when she was 10 months old.” The open house was packed when she first visited, but she saw up on a wall a framed “Read” poster from the American Library Association. One of the sellers was a librarian—and Woodson knew she had an in.

Woodson has lived in Brooklyn since she was seven, when she and her two older siblings moved up from Greenville, South Carolina, to join her mother and new baby brother. She writes about it in Brown Girl Dreaming, her 2014 National Book Award-winning memoir in verse.
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She now owns the building in Bushwick where she grew up. “I miss black Brooklyn,” Woodson says. “I miss black privilege.” In many years she’s lived in Park Slope, she says she’s gotten more weird looks, squinty eyes, and surprised expressions from her neighbors more recently. “It used to be Dyke Slope!” she says. The neighborhood, richer and whiter and straighter, has changed beneath her feet.

It’s shaped where Woodson and her partner, Juliet Widoff, have decided to send their children to school: Their daughter, Toshi, goes to Mark Twain Intermediate in Coney Island; Jackson-Leroi to the Brooklyn New School downtown. “I don’t want my son to be the only child of color in the room,” she says.

Woodson is good at talking about herself, about her books, about the world. You get the sense (and it’d be correct) that she does this a lot. Her voice is measured and considered. She does not turn bashful at mention of her awards or self-effacing when it comes to her work. She talks about her talent—a gift—and what she sees as her duty to use it. Her work has been methodical, both in the breadth of her output (poetry, picture books, young adult novels, adult novels) and its volume, but also in the kinds of stories she tells.

In an interview with the PBS show Reading Rockets, Woodson describes an interaction she had with a teacher at an all-white school in Topeka, Kansas. The teacher said they didn’t buy books about black people because there were no black people there. “I thought, are your kids always going to be here? When your kids leave here and they come to New York City, I don’t want my child to be the first black person they ever encounter… Why don’t we start with the literature?”

Woodson actively looks for stories that haven’t been told before, that need to be told, and she tells them. Locomotion follows an eleven-year-old in foster care. Miracle’s Boys is about an older brother raising his two younger siblings. Hush is about living within the witness protection program. Feathers features a deaf character. Visiting Day celebrates a daughter’s monthly reunion with her imprisoned father. This Is the Rope is a story of the Great Migration; The Other Side, of segregation. Show Way tells the story of Woodson’s matriarchal line and the story-telling quilts (“Show Ways”) they passed down with them. Brown Girl Dreaming is Woodson’s origin story about the writer she would become.

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“I think there’s always a need for more stories,” Woodson said on Reading Rockets. “I get constant emails about why there isn’t more literature targeted at gay/lesbian/transgender youth, why isn’t there more literature targeted at biracial families, more literature that’s targeted at single-parent families and parents.” She speculates about the new kinds of stories that the housing crisis spawned: “What does it mean for your family to go through a foreclosure?”

“This mission is what’s been passed down to me,” she wrote in the New York Times, an essay that in part responded to the racist joke Lemony Snicket-author Daniel Handler told when introduced Woodson as the winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, “to write stories that have been historically absent in this country’s body of literature, to create mirrors for the people who so rarely see themselves inside contemporary fiction, and windows for those who think we are no more than the stereotypes they’re so afraid of. To give young people—and all people—a sense of this country’s brilliant and brutal history, so that no one ever thinks they can walk onto a stage one evening and laugh at another’s too often painful past.”

We talk about the kinds of story people wanted, or saw, Brown Girl Dreaming to be. Woodson sighs, exasperated, when I tell her I had listened to her interview with Terry Gross the day before. Gross had asked why the memoir didn’t address Woodson’s sexuality. “She really fixated on the gay stuff,” Woodson says.

But the book isn’t so much about the long spool of Woodson’s life; it ends, in 5th grade, with a teacher calling Woodson a writer, with Woodson watching The Big Blue Marble on TV and imagining her own worlds, with a list of beliefs (“I believe in Brooklyn!”), with a new world:
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“I figured out what I was trying to say,” Woodson says of the end of Brown Girl Dreaming. “How I became a writer.”

“I have all these worlds in my head from all the stories I’ve heard,” she says. Brown Girl Dreaming is one big world made up of many smaller ones. The poems themselves feel more like memory than a straight narrative would: a snippet here, a flash there. The book’s texture, like a patchwork quilt, is intricate and beautiful. Woodson is working on a novel for adults now, but she wouldn’t say anything more. She shows us upstairs, through a sewing room—Woodson also makes clothes—and into a sunlit room full of books. She tells us about going to see the New York premiere of Paper Towns and how her daughter will text John Green—mad with teen power—just to prove to her friends than she knows him. “John is such a good guy,” Woodson said. “You couldn’t ask it to happen to a better person.”

She talks about the books she is reading now: Thanhhà Lại’s Listen Slowly, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. “He is moving to Paris in a few weeks,” she says of Coates. I asked her if she’d ever move. Temporarily, maybe. A month here, a year there. But she’d never leave Brooklyn. “Brooklyn is home.”

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