In her 2014 coming-of-age memoir “Brown Girl Dreaming,” author Jacqueline Woodson turned small moments in her life into a book of free-verse poetry. She said she wrote it to make sense of her journey from young girl with a dream to award-winning author.
While talking to district high school students recently, Woodson recalled standing in her home office, looking at the books she’s published and her many awards. She considered how she got there.
“How did this happen? How did I go from someone in an underserved family who wanted to be a writer to being in this place?” she asked.
“I started writing down my memories,” Woodson continued. Her memories took the form of verse, describing the life of an African American girl growing up in Brooklyn, New York, and South Carolina in the ’60s and ’70s. She was Jehovah’s Witness and Muslim at different points in her life, and society was affected by both the civil rights movement and the racial segregation mentality.
Brown Girl Dreaming starts on Feb. 12, 1963. The first stanza reads:
I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
a country caught
between Black and White
After more than 30 rewrites, the book was finished. “When I was writing “Brown Girl Dreaming,” I didn’t know what it was going to be,” Woodson said. She questioned if her own memories would interest others. Now, the book is winner of the Newbery Honor Award, the Coretta Scott King Award and the National Book Award. “The more specific you get, the more people you touch,” she said. “The ordinary becomes the extraordinary.”
Woodson has published 32 books for all ages. Much of her work is geared toward young adults. She has won more than 200 awards and was named Young People’s Poet Laureate in 2015. During her visits, she read from three of her books.
Writing Their Own Life Journeys
Students prepared for Woodson’s visit, coordinated by Kent District Library as part of the KDL Reads program, by using the book as inspiration for writing poetry and essays of their own for the high-school Aspiring Writers Contest.
Woodson also visited Wyoming High School, where juniors prepared by publishing a book of their own prose. Godwin Heights Middle and High School students also participated in Literary Lunches to study “Brown Girl Dreaming.”
Woodson’s work inspired Godwin Heights junior Enida Jahaj, winner of the school’s essay contest, to write about her own life as a child, born in Germany, with major health problems. Enida said said she likes how Woodson’s writing is honest, but she never paints herself as a victim.
“People say words are just words but, to me, words are so much more,” Enida said. “They have the power to break someone or make someone, to say your final goodbye or your first hello. They’re the start and the end of so many thing in our lives. I love the fact that she’s so powerful with the words she uses. They can touch so many people.”
Getting to the Other Side
Woodson, who lives in Brooklyn, decided she wanted to be a writer at age 7. “My biggest dream was to be a writer, an award-winning writer,” she said. “I wrote every chance I got,” she said. She struggled with reading, however, and read very slowly. She now realizes she was paying attention to every word, reading like a writer.
Woodson’s goal eventually became to fill the gap caused by under-representation of people of color in literature. Her books are influenced by growing up in a black and Latino neighborhood. She encouraged students to pull from their own experiences. “There’s such a richness there,” she said.
Students asked Woodson about her inspirations and challenges.
When asked, “Did you ever want to give up when it was getting tough?” She responded, “Every day… The biggest thing I had to overcome was doubt, the feeling that I couldn’t do it.”
But she’s learned that books need to be revised many times. “When it gets hard is when you’re getting to the other side of it,” she said. “I’ve written 32 books, and the book falls apart every single time.”
She never had a backup plan for a different career, and she views that as a good thing. “Even when writing is so tough, I can’t imagine not doing it.”
Woodson has visited many schools across the country, but Godwin Heights and Wyoming were her last planned visits. She said she enjoys meeting teenagers.
“They’re open and honest and hungry and looking for ways to represent themselves in the world,” she said.