Every evening in her four-story Brooklyn townhouse, author Jacqueline Woodson and her partner gather their family around for a meal and a ritual: Each person shares one act of kindness they’ve given that day — and one way kindness found its way back to them.
Celebrated for Brown Girl Dreaming and Another Brooklyn, Woodson, 53, writes literature with family at its core. Each Kindness, her 2012 picture book, considers two schoolgirls and a missed chance at friendship. “How does one walk through this world and be kind without even giving it a second thought?” Woodson said she wondered as she wrote the work.
With wit and warmth and a bit of edge, Woodson told a packed auditorium in Beachwood, Ohio, how she thinks on the page and in person about “identity, empathy and belonging.” Her hosts — Beachwood City Schools, Hawken School, Laurel School and the Cleveland office of Facing History and Ourselves — collaborated to prepare their students for Woodson’s visit. The educators want to foster empathy and belonging in “our divided country,” as Hawken’s headmaster Scott Looney put it.
In writing more than 30 books, Woodson said she said she works to quench young readers’ thirst for texts in which they can see themselves: “For a lot of people of color, we have had a long history of windows and very few mirrors. I wanted to grow up and fill that hole and. . .have it overflowing.”
Woodson recited from memory the opening pages of Brown Girl Dreaming that recount her birth in Columbus, Ohio. She grew up a voracious reader in South Carolina and New York City. She insisted that it was opportunity, not talent, that propelled her from her Bushwick neighborhood to win a National Book Award in 2014 and become the Young People’s Poet Laureate for the Poetry Foundation.
“You throw a stone [in Bushwick] — you’ll hit 25 Jacqueline Woodsons. It’s not like I’m some superstar. I was lucky,” she said. “But there were so many creative geniuses in my neighborhood — people who danced, who sang, people who should have been judges or at least really good lawyers.”
Joking that dyslexia had caused her to approach the stage in the wrong direction, Woodson highlighted her adaptive behaviors: “I am a very slow reader and a slow writer. I read everything out loud.” She said she wrote Brown Girl Dreaming in verse because that was how her memory works, and she primes it by reading poetry and listening to eclectic music, sampling Black Eyed Peas and Glen Campbell and Tupac all in one sitting.
She was also generous in citing other writers, quoting Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Kwame Alexander and the documentary filmmaker Raoul Peck, whose new movie “I Am Not Your Negro” releases February 3. And she is an enthusiast for family viewing of “Black-ish,” a television series she named the best of 2016 for the New York Times. (The Woodson clan chaffs as it waits a day after it originally airs to catch it on their streaming service.) “We love it more than anything else that has ever been on television,” she wrote. But the real appeal is its role as a conversation starter.
“Every single day at our table, we’re talking about race. We’re talking about class…” Woodson said. “It’s important to be comfortable having those conversations around the dinner table.”
Do you remember being fifteen? Let Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson’s first adult novel in 20 years, jog your memory. In this gritty, coming-of-age tale, Woodson transports readers to sweltering 1970s Brooklyn, New York, as a young girl grapples with unbearable grief, friendship and lost memories.
When we meet August, she’s an anthropologist in her mid-30s who has returned to Brooklyn after a long absence to bury her father. She has an accidental run-in with an old friend — more like a sister, really — that triggers remembrances. The rest of the novel is a flashback to early adolescence. August narrates her own story.
We begin with eight-year-old August moving from a dilapidated Tennessee farm to New York City with her father and younger brother. The Vietnam War claimed her mother’s younger brother and the loss drove her mother to an early grave.
In those early days in Brooklyn, a trio of girls — Gigi, Sylvia, and Angela — soon become her confidants. The longing for connection is palpable, both to readers and her newfound friends.
What did you see in me? I’d ask years later. Who did you see standing there?
You looked lost, Gigi whispered. Lost and beautiful.
The new foursome blend so tightly that even their descriptions on the page feel fluid. The three girls become kin to August, the intimacy of their relationship soothing but never extinguishing her grief: “…I had Sylvia, Angela and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying, Here. Help me carry this.”
They all navigate complicated home lives, short-lived romances and persistent predators, giving each other tips on how to protect their bodies. (They all know to avoid the owner of the shoe repair shop: He’ll offer you a quarter to see your panties.)
Woodson is a master at summoning small details — the glint of a wrench used to twist off a fire hydrant cap, the tips of toes hanging over the edge of too-small shoes — and at painting a portrait of a neighborhood in flux. There are no throwaway sentences in Another Brooklyn — each short, poetic line feels carefully loved and polished. The first half of this novel asks urgent questions; the second delivers uneasy, heartbreaking answers. At its core, this book is about fragility, how light shines in the broken places.
While most of the characters are vibrant and well-drawn, it is surprising that our protagonist is so mysterious. The readers don’t really know August beyond her grief. Woodson keeps the details scant: August is a protective big sister and a dutiful daughter. But what defines August, through all 170 pages, is her inability to cope with the foundational loss of her mother. Every page holds a dull ache.
Asked to name her influences by Booklist, Woodson said, “Two major writers for me are James Baldwin and Virginia Hamilton. It blew me away to find out that Virginia Hamilton was a sister like me. Later, Nikki Giovanni had a similar effect on me. I feel that I learned how to write from Baldwin. He was onto some future stuff, writing about race and gender long before people were comfortable with those dialogues. He would cross class lines all over the place, and each of his characters was remarkably believable. I still pull him down from my shelf when I feel stuck.”
Woodson has spent the last two decades crafting smart young adult fiction and poetry, most recently winning the National Book Award in 2014 for her poetic memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming. Woodson’s return to adult fiction doesn’t stray far from her comfort zone; minus a few scenes, Another Brooklyn would work entirely as a young adult novel. It is one that strengthens as the pages pile up.
In absorbing August’s journey, we’re reminded that our teenage selves still roam within, only tempered by time and adult responsibility. But Another Brooklyn brings them back to the forefront, asking us, Who were you when you were 15?