author spotlight, black history, black lives, social studies, social-emotional

Author Spotlight – Jacqueline Woodson

From top to bottom, Jacqueline Woodson is someone who was born to write. She grew up splitting her life between time in South Carolina and New York, learning a lot from both places. After college, Woodson did a lot of technical writing, from children’s packaging to the California standardized tests. After enrolling in a children’s book writing class led by Delacorte editor Bebe Willoughby, Woodson finally found someone who saw the immense talent she possessed. I find Woodson’s work to be some of the most beautiful and pointed in addressing the social-emotional needs of children, especially Black children. She has been forthright in her opinion that “bleakness” and “hopelessness” have no place in children’s literature without at least a strong notion of hope added to counter them. While Woodson has written for all ages, I am only familiar with her picture book work, and it is some of the best out there right now. She can deftly tackle things many educators may be scared of at the moment, aggressive right-wing movements making it “awkward” to talk about. Woodson’s writing is so laser-focused on speaking to the child that she is not interested in catering to adult hatemongers who want to muddy the child’s thinking. 

While you are likely to hear about Woodson’s more recent books (like The Day You Begin or The Year We Learned to Fly), I want to recommend some older pieces from her bibliography. 

The Other Side (Nancy Paulsen Books)
Written by Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by E.B. Lewis

For ages: 5-9
Clover, a Black girl, has been told to stay on her family’s side of the fence. Annie, a white girl, has been told the same by her parents. The two girls stare quietly, growing increasingly curious about the other. When asked why the adults never speak when they cross paths in town, the girls are told this is how it has always been. It’s evident that these two want to become friends, and the prejudices of the grown-ups aren’t going to stop them. E.B. Lewis’ watercolor paintings are the perfect touch, adding an expressionist touch to the visuals. The book’s message is that the pull to be together as one people is our natural state, not the artificial divisions that have been present in society for so very long.

Show Way (Nancy Paulsen Books)
Written by Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by Hudson Talbott

For ages: 4-8
This stunning book is about quilts connecting Black women across time and space. Soonie is a grandmother who shows how the quilt stretches back to the era of slavery when her great-grandmother is sold as a child from her Virginia plantation home. In the present day, Toshi, Soonie’s granddaughter & Woodson’s daughter, learns these stories while looking at the colorful and detailed patches of the quilt. This multimedia showcase from Hudson Talbott uses watercolor, chalk, fabric, and photographs to tell the story of a single family’s long and winding road to the present day. This is a topic that could quickly become unwieldy. Still, Woodson’s extraordinary prose and Talbott’s illustrations immerse the reader in the experience, conveying the depth of love that can be felt in a family across generations.

This Is The Rope: A Story From the Great Migration (Nancy Paulsen Books)
Written by Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by James Ransome

For ages: 5-9
A girl tells the story of how a simple length of rope has helped a Black family across three generations. As a little girl, the grandmother discovers the rope underneath a tree. She uses it as a jump rope, and it follows her when, as an adult, she gets married, has kids, and moves to New York City. The cord holds the family’s luggage to the roof of the car. Over the years, the family’s women rediscover the rope lost in a box in the closet and find it works perfectly for a need they have. For the narrator’s mother, the rope helps her bond with her new neighbors in New York. It even helps hold up a banner at a family reunion. The story helps to detail the diaspora of Southern Black people who moved in great numbers to Northern cities that promised better opportunities to live outside of segregation and better jobs. Like all of Woodson’s work, this book is so overflowing with love that our young readers will find a lot of hope in it.

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