National Book Award winner speaks about diverse literature

Jacqueline Woodson, author of "Brown Girl Dreaming," spoke about her life and her work as a black author of children's books.

When Jacqueline Woodson recites her poetry from memory, it doesn't sound like words — it sounds like music.

An author known for her contribution to children's and young adult literature, Woodson spoke Tuesday evening at Syracuse University about her work, her youth and how the two blend together. Her 2014 memoir "Brown Girl Dreaming" is told through poetic snippets, and has won a handful of awards, including the 2015 National Book Award in the Young People's Literature category.

In an introduction prior to Woodson's talk, English Education doctoral student Sarah Fleming paid homage to Woodson's dedication to her young audience.

"Last night, in preparation for this talk I did what good students do — I did my research and I looked at your website — and I was absolutely delighted to see your page was designed for young people," Fleming said. "Talk about knowing your audience — Ms. Woodson's writing is what results from really knowing and respecting ones audience."

From the time she was seven years old, Woodson said she knew she wanted to be a writer. But as a slow reader, not many people had faith in her literary future. Growing up as a black woman in Greenville, South Carolina, and later Brooklyn, New York, Woodson's career as a wordsmith wasn't something many people believed in, she said.

"I wrote all the time and I loved writing. You didn’t need anything expensive — you needed a pencil and you needed some paper and you were on your way," Woodson said. "My mom's idea was you don’t grow up to be an artist — you grow up to get a job. So when I would tell my mom I wanted to be a writer, she had other ideas for me."

Thirty-two books later, Woodson's writing aptitude has carried her to the forefront of the diverse literature scene. Most of her work is young adult fiction, but middle-grade novels and poetry make up her penned collection as well. In her talk, Woodson read passages from various books she's written in between talking about her family, her education and her writing habits.

In talking about education, Woodson said that teachers play a crucial role — one more serious than they think. Talking about diversity — whether that is sexual orientation, race, disability or something else — doesn't have to be as hard as some people make it, she said.

"Even in my son's very diverse school, I can see a difference in how teachers respond to white boys and to black boys. I see that," Woodson said. "Teachers set the tone for the classroom — as educators, you have so much power."

Olivia Shaw, a junior majoring in inclusive elementary and special education within the School of Education, said she came to listen to Woodson without having read any of her work previously. Coming in and learning what Woodson's thoughts were without any prior knowledge helped Shaw to really take note of her ideas, Shaw said, adding that Woodson's opinions on the education barriers in schools resonated with her. 

"It was very interested in her perspective that educators need to set the tone — I completely agree with that," Shaw said. "If you're tired as a teacher, it's so much more difficult to connect."

Woodson concluded by talking more about her memoir. She said that when she spent three and a half years writing "Brown Girl Dreaming" and reflecting on her existence, she learned so much about herself and the value of the people in her life. 

"I never think of my life as hard — I think of my life as amazing," Woodson said. "Everything fell into place so I could be here, telling you my story today."

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