SLJ catches up with Margaret A. Edwards Award-winner Jacqueline Woodson to talk about her latest picture book, Each Kindness (Penguin, 2012), which deals with empathy, regret, and the difficulty of human relationships.
I think my daughter saw a little bit of herself in Chloe when she read Each Kindness. Where’d the idea come from?
Each Kindness (Penguin, 2012) came from a number of places. When my daughter was a bit younger, I was surprised to notice how cruel second graders could be. I remember hearing one girl say to another friend “Why would you even THINK of wearing that bathing suit?” The friend immediately covered herself up in this heartbreakingly suddenly self-conscious way. I think that’s when I really started trying to understand all of this. When I’m trying to figure something out, I usually end up writing about it. I always say I write because I have questions, not answers. So I started thinking about the whole Mean Girl thing. Was it new? How do children figure out how to be cruel, and what is it about that cruelty that is attractive to them? I knew part of it was power. There is a way in which looking down on someone else can make the down-looker feel powerful. But then, the question became “Why do we need that kind of negative empowerment?” On and on, the questions kept spiraling until they landed back to me as a young girl and the moments when I was cruel. And of course, the remorse I later felt because of it. A lot of times, especially with pictures books, I like to press the rewind button and go back to who I was as a child—warts and all. I was cruel sometimes and sometimes kids were cruel to me. And this is not something new.
Were you more like Chloe or Maya as a little girl?
I think at some point we are all either Chloe or Maya—I don’t’ know a single person who has not been cruel at some point in their lives, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been treated cruelly.
It made me sad to find out that Chloe never gets to make amends with Maya.
I think there’s this sense people have that tomorrow will always come—that we’ll always have another chance at something. But of course, it’s not always true. People die. People move away. Whatever the reason is, sometimes that moment is, as Chloe says, “Forever gone.” When I got to this line in the book, I knew that’s what this book was saying to me and by extension, once it was published, to the world: that we can’t assume we’ll get another chance. So do the right thing in this moment—be kind. I think kindness is so easy. It connects people, and it’s empowering. It feels good to compliment someone and watch their face light up. At night, our family has to say what kind things we’ve done during the day. The beauty of this is it makes us all slow down during the day, take in what we’ll be bringing to the dinner table.
This is third time you’ve chosen E.B. Lewis to illustrate one of your picture books. What is it about his style that draws you to his work, and what’s it like to work together?
I love that people always confuse him with the Charlotte’s Web author. When I wrote The Other Side, E.B. set it back in the past, and I was surprised. Once the shock wore off, I loved the book and 10 years later, I still love it. And because I knew he was able to do such beautiful paintings of the past, I chose him for Coming On Home Soon because it was set during World War II. When I wrote Each Kindness, because it was such an important book for me, and because it was a story about girls, I chose a different illustrator. But that illustrator’s drawings didn’t give the book the depth I wanted it to have—or the resonance. I realized I had made a mistake not choosing E.B. in the beginning. When I knew we’d have to scrap the original illustrations for the book, we approached E.B. and he fell in love with the story and said he’d illustrate it. Each time E.B. illustrates a book of mine (and sometimes it takes me a moment to realize it), I feel like he gives me and the world a gift. While I love The Other Side and Coming On Home Soon, I think he took Each Kindness to a whole new level. The way he uses light and point of view just blows me away. These days, when I’m stuck on my present work, I just spend time staring at that last image in Each Kindness—there is so much hope in it that I can’t help but thinking “Everything will work out fine.”
You address some serious issues in all of your books. Do you prefer writing YA novels, books for middle schoolers, or picture books?
I love writing them all. With picture books, I get a chance to write poetry. I love poetry and read lots of it. When I’m writing picture books, I spend a lot of time thinking about line breaks, white space, the visual impact of each line of text, the story’s trajectory, the economy of language and stuff like that. When I’m writing for young adults, I feel like I have this HUGE canvas that I can paint a complicated story on. I also feel like I can take my time—that the story will get where it needs to get to when it gets there. And so while I’m still thinking about language, I’m not so concerned with line-breaks and white space. But I do believe that there isn’t any time to waste—even if I am taking my time. I know that sounds contradictory but it makes sense on the page. Each sentence has to move the story forward. But the sentences don’t have to be in a hurry.They can ebb and flow gently. I’m thinking of Behind You –the book opens with these lines “You do not die. Your soul steps out of your body, shakes itself hard because it’s been carrying the weight of your heavy skin for 15 years…” There’s the slow entry into the story –we don’t know who is speaking yet, don’t know why they’re telling us this. But each word pulls us further in and the gentle sway of the language gives us faith that what we need to know will be revealed in time. So I love that. With middle grade fiction, my language has to be more immediate—there is really no time to waste. The action begins from the first line “His coming into our classroom that morning was the only new thing.” (Feathers) And boom, someone has entered a room and we’re ready to find out what the old things were, who this ‘he’ is, etc. So I love all of it and wouldn’t be able to choose one over the other.
Do you ever worry that any of your books will get banned? Does that ever interfere with the writing process?
I’m sure my books get censored and banned left and right (well, probably mostly Right) but it’s not something I worry about. I don’t give it that much energy. I’m not writing for the people who don’t want to read me, I’m writing for myself and for the people who have been hungry for reflections of themselves in literature, for people who want to step into a world completely different from their own and gain empathy through that journey, for the people who believe that all people have a right to tell and read their stories. I’ve always been stronger than the forces that have aligned against me. I know that strength comes from the people who came before me who have had forces aligned against them since they were first brought as enslaved people into this country. I’m sure my ancestors would have been happy to have something as simple as censorship to worry about! So I don’t let thoughts about someone trying to silence me to keep me from doing the work I was brought here to do. I do believe my work in this lifetime is to write stories that matter about people who have been historically silenced. We all have such a tiny window of time on this planet, and I don’t’ want to waste my time here worrying about the people who want to silence me or by being afraid. There’s this great verse in the poem I Remember, I Believe by Bernice Johnson Reagon. “The power of the Universe knows my name. Gave me a song to sing and sent me on my way. I raise my voice for justice, I believe.”
You’re so prolific and seem to always be working on more than one book at once. Where does the inspiration come from?
What is there NOT to write about? You walk outside, and you see a dozen things and have a dozen thoughts before you get to the corner store. Also, all the life that happens to people all day long… I think I’m constantly taking stuff in and thinking about it and then writing to try to understand. So I guess that’s my biggest inspiration—my desire to know, to understand. And because that is a never-ending desire, I’m always inspired.
Do you write on a PC or Mac?
I write on a Mac now, but my first 13 books were written using notebooks and a PC. I love writing wherever the words come to me!
Where’s your favorite place to write?
I used to love writing in my favorite yellow chair. And then I loved writing in my office when the light hit the room just so. And then it was my stoop. But I find I move around, and I’m not really happy until I can be still and have the words flowing. These days, I write at my kitchen table because my kitchen is warm and gets a lot of light. Light is very important to me.
What do your kids, Toshi, 10, and Jackson-Leroi, 4, think of your work?
Toshi is admittedly “Not a fan of your work, Mommy.” Which is fine. I think it’s a journey for her—to bring the two selves (Mommy/Writer) together. I have a lot of fans among her friends, which is flattering and cool. Her big constructive criticism is “You’re just not funny enough when you write.” JL reads my work (or rather, we read it to him). He says sweet things about all of my work. With my new book, This Is The Rope, he said “This is really good, Mommy!” and it completely made my day. But he also says things like “Your book needs a dragon in it.” Alas.
Are there plans to make any of your books into movies?
There’s talk about making Beneath A Meth Moon into a movie. An actress signed on to play Laurel and there’s a director who is interested. I don’t know if it’ll happen. I try to distance myself from my books being anything but books, really. I try not to get caught up. When I finish writing a book, I try to make sure I’m working on something else I can bury my head inside so that the new story has my attention instead of stuff like reviews, awards and Hollywood.
What are you working on now?
I’m also working on plays these days. I don’t know a whole lot about writing them, but I’m learning. It’s really great to be a neophyte. I mean, each time I write a book, it’s like I’ve never written one before because of all the challenges that new story presents. But with plays, I barely know what upstage/downstage is so I’m REALLY green. So green that I find myself laughing at myself and shaking my head when I’ve written myself into some crazy corner. It’s all a journey and I’m pretty glad I’m on it.