On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Kojo For Kids welcomes Author Jacqueline Woodson to the show on Monday, December 7 at 12:30. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
From her MacArthur Fellowship to the Hans Christian Anderson Award — the highest international prize for children’s literature — there’s hardly an honor author Jacqueline Woodson hasn’t won.
But that’s not why kids love her books. Woodson reflects kids’ fears, dreams and courage in stories that keep young readers turning pages. And she champions children’s literature — both her own and other writers’ — that features a diversity of kids.
From Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir which won the National Book Award, to the recently-published Before The Ever After, in which a boy struggles with a parent’s illness, Woodson takes on tough, real-life problems — but always leaves her readers with hope.
Jacqueline Woodson joins us to answer kids’ questions about her writing, their writing and how she’s trying to make the best of this pandemic. (Hint: It has four legs.)
We also welcome the students of Chevy Chase Elementary School, our school of the week. We’re looking forward to their questions, and yours too — if you’re a kid!
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Jacqueline Woodson Best-selling and award-winning author of "Brown Girl Dreaming" and more than 30 other books for children and adults; @JackieWoodson
KOJO NNAMDIYou're listening to the theme song to "Miracle's Boys," a television series based on the book by Jacqueline Woodson and directed by Spike Lee. Maybe you've read "Miracle's Boys," "Brown Girl Dreaming" or any of the other more than 30 books that have made Jacqueline Woodson one of the most beloved authors writing for kids today.
KOJO NNAMDIShe's here with us to answer questions about reading, writing and maybe even how she got her first job when she was two years old. We also welcome the students from Chevy Chase Elementary School, our school of the week. We look forward to their questions and yours, too -- if you're a kid, that is. Adults are welcome to listen, but on Kojo for Kids, we take kids calls only. Jacqueline Woodson is a MacArthur Fellow and author of more than 30 books, including "Brown Girl Dreaming" and the recently published "Before the Ever After." Jacqueline Woodson, thank you for joining us.
JACQUELINE WOODSONOh, thanks so much for having me.
NNAMDITell us a little bit about when you were a kid. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
WOODSONI was born in Columbus, Ohio. So, I'm originally a Buckeye. And I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina until I was around seven. And then my family moved to Brooklyn, New York as part of the Great Migration, that period where millions of black folks left the very oppressive conditions of the South for places like New York, California, Chicago. So, we landed in Brooklyn.
NNAMDITell us about your family.
WOODSONI have two brothers and a sister. We were all on a Zoom last night for my niece's birthday, and this is how we're gathering these days. We're getting together on Zoom to see each other's faces and engage and connect. I grew up with my mom and my grandmother. I grew up Jehovah's Witness and Muslim. I grew up, you know, in both Brooklyn and South Carolina. So, I think having all of those experiences really impacted the stories that I would later write. I just feel like I've lived in many, many worlds, and I'm able to tell many stories.
NNAMDIWhat did you like to do as a kid?
NNAMDI(laugh) Okay, we can move on.
WOODSONI was a kid. You know, we hopscotched, double Dutch, skully, handball, basketball. I mean, when I think of my childhood, I think of how much playing I did. And, at home we had very limited TV, because my mom was always like, read a book, pick up a book and read. Do something together. So, we played lots of board games. And since there were four of us, there was always, you know, a crowd, in that way.
WOODSONBut, yeah, I look back at childhood and I see myself playing a lot and also being forced to (laugh) read a lot, even though I was a really slow reader. My mom was like, I don't care, you know, I want your head in a book.
NNAMDIWell, you've got to explain how you ended up in a commercial at the mature age of two.
WOODSON(laugh) It was so funny, because I was -- your producer Lauren sent me a clip from Josh Pray talking about Alaga Syrup, and it just had me cracking up, because that was my first job, as a spokesperson for Alaga Syrup. And the funny thing was, I did a couple of advertisements for Ebony Magazine. I was the, you know, model for Alaga Syrup.
WOODSONAnd one of the ones I have is me saying, "I wish they had Alaga Syrup in school, too." And I'm looking very dreamingly at the camera, but I'm two years old, but they're passing me off as a school-aged kid, because I guess I look so much older. (laugh) But, yeah, that was my first job. I got paid to sell Alaga Syrup, which, according to Josh Pray, is not very good. (laugh)
NNAMDII bet you knew very little about it at the time.
WOODSONI did not.
NNAMDIWhat were some of your favorite books to read when you were a kid?
WOODSONI loved Oscar Wilde's "The Selfish Giant." I love "The Little Match Girl," by Hans Christian Andersen. One of the earliest books I remember reading and truly seeing myself inside of was a book called "Stevie," by John Steptoe.
NNAMDILove John Steptoe.
WOODSONShe come -- yeah, and Eloise Greenfield. I remember the first time I read "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" I was blown away, because the family reminded me so much of my family. So, Mildred Taylor, Judy Blume, of course. Those are some of my early people.
NNAMDIGot to give Eloise Greenfield a shout out. She's a D.C. woman, so we're here. And she's been a guest on this broadcast.
WOODSONStill love her.
NNAMDIYou credited a teacher of yours for helping you to become a writer. Tell us about Mr. Miller. Why was he important in your life?
WOODSONI think one thing about Mr. Miller was he saw me in a way that other teachers didn't. I think because my sister was such an academic and, you know, always getting lauded and rewarded for being this kind of superstar brain that I wasn't. Teachers tended to look at academics more than they saw the whole person. And, of course, I didn't know any of this until I was older.
WOODSONAnd Mr. Miller was one of the early teachers to say, you know, you're a writer. You got this. You're the real thing. And I've loved writing since I was seven years old, and it was something that I found the most joy in. And as an adult, I realized that that's what one's brilliance is, right, that thing that they find the most joy in and they want to do. And because they want to do it with joy, they do it really well. And Mr. Miller was that one that legitimized it in this way and truly, truly saw who I was and where my brilliance lay.
NNAMDIOkay. I now relinquish my questioning role to the students at Chevy Chase Elementary School. I will start with 10-year-old Clara. Clara, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CLARAAre any of the characters in your books based on you?
WOODSONYes. The character in "Brown Girl Dreaming" is based on me, because that is a memoir and it's all about my life. (laugh) So, that Jacqueline and Jackie in "Brown Girl Dreaming" is, of course, me. And at the end of the book, you see all the pictures of me and my family. But if I -- yeah, so that is. And I think there are other characters -- I always say there's some part of Jacqueline Woodson in every single character I write, but none of them is 100 percent Jacqueline, except "Brown Girl Dreaming," because it's a true story.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Clara. And eight-and-a-half-year-old Maren, also from Chevy Chase Elementary School, asked, if "Brown Girl Dreaming" is about your own life, how did you get through the hard times?
WOODSONOh, that's a great question. I mean, how are you getting through the hard times, right? We are living in some very hard times right now. And think of how you're getting through it. You're getting through it with your family. You're getting through it with your friends. You're getting through it with your books. You're getting through it with the things that bring you joy.
WOODSONAnd, as a child, I didn't see my life as hard. I'm sure you don't see your life as hard, but when you look back on it, you're going to look at the pandemic. You're going to look at the election. You're going to look at so many things and say, wow, I got through that. And the same for me.
NNAMDIOkay. Here now is 10-year-old Chauncey, also of Chevy Chase Elementary School. Chauncey, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHAUNCEYWhat inspired you to write poetry?
WOODSONSo, when I was a kid, Chauncey, poetry made me nervous. It felt like this secret code that I wasn't meant to understand. And it wasn't until I discovered writers like Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes and, of course, Eloise Greenfield and poets that not only looked like me, but who told stories through their poetry that I could understand.
WOODSONI remember one of the early Langston Hughes poems I remember is: I love my friend. He went away from me. There's nothing more to say, this poem ends the same as it began, I love my friend. And that was so clear to me. I understood that. And once I started understanding poetry, I knew that I could write it, too. That I could break the lines and create white space and find ways to tell stories through poetry, even though as a very young person, I thought I would never get to that point.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We have -- Chauncey, that is. We have a call from 10-year-old Sophie in Chevy Chase Elementary that also may relate to Chauncey's question. But Sophie, go ahead, please. You're on the air.
SOPHIESo, I love your books. I notice that in some of your books, you write in verse. How is writing in verse different than writing in prose?
WOODSONYou know, it's a great question. In terms of writing in verse, I write in verse when I have a reason for it. So, with "Brown Girl Dreaming," that book is written in verse because that's how memory comes to us, right. It's these small moments with all this white space around it. And the white space is the stuff we don't know, the unknown.
WOODSONAnd so, if I was going to tell the story of my life, I wouldn't tell is as chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, because that's not how I remember it. You remember small moments, and then you put them together, and it creates a life. And so that's why that's written in verse. "Before the Ever After" is written in verse because it's also about memory. It's about someone losing their memory. And then "Locomotion" is written in verse. Have you read "Locomotion" yet?
WOODSONOh, okay. So, "Locomotion" is a story about a boy who's learning to tell the story of his life through poetry. He's in the fifth grade, and his teacher is teaching them about poetry. And he has this story, and he realizes, I can write this in poetry. And so, as a writer, if I was talking about a person who was writing poetry and I wasn't writing poetry to tell the story, I would be breaking the first rule of writing, which is show, don't tell. I have to show him writing in poetry, so that you can see a poet becoming. And so that's why. So, every time I write a book in verse, I have a reason for doing it that way.
NNAMDISophie, thank you very much for your call. Jacqueline Woodson, you have never hesitated to tackle tough topics in your books, and your new book is no different. Tell us about "Before the Ever After," which is a novel, also in poetry form. What's it about?
WOODSON"Before the Ever After" is the story of a boy, ZJ, whose father gets CTE. His father's a professional football player, and he gets chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is the brain injury that causes a lot of difficulties. And so ZJ is telling the story of having a father who was a pro ball player and what happens in the family and in his father's life.
NNAMDII hear we get to listen to some of "Before the Ever After." Can you introduce what you're going to read for us?
WOODSONThe piece I'm going to read is called Maplewood 2000, and Maplewood, New Jersey is where the family lives. I had never set a book in Maplewood, and it made sense to set this one there. And so, this is very early on in the book. And Daniel, Darry and Ollie are ZJ's best friends. That's all you need to know.
WOODSONThis guy on the radio -- oh, so Maplewood 2000, so it's the year 2000. And 2000 was the year people were very nervous about, because they thought because it was changing to 2000, that bad things were going to happen. This guy on the radio said the world was going to end when we got to the new millennium. That it was going to explode, a whole other Big Bang, but this time, instead of the Earth being created, it was just going to bust into smithereens and all of us would be gone from here forever.
WOODSONDecember 31st, 1999 came on a Friday, so Ollie, Darry, Daniel were all staying at my house. A little bit of snow was falling, and we were in my room listening to a Prince CD playing the song "1999" over and over again. Darry was dancing. Maybe one day, we'll see him dancing on TV. He danced over to the window, looking up at the sky, waiting for some sign. I asked him if he saw anything that looked like the end of time. "Nope," he said. "Just snow."
WOODSONAnd maybe we were a little bit scared that it was true, that this was the last night of all of our lives. And maybe we were a little bit excited for some kind of explosion. We were only 10 then, and I guess when you're a little kid like that, some part of you just believes that no matter what happens, you're going to be safe.
WOODSON"If the end of time comes," Daniel said, "we had us some good years together. I'll always remember y'all." We didn't know what was coming. We didn't even think it was strange that my daddy was in his room with the door closed, instead of in his chair in the TV room, watching videos of football games. But when he came into our room and started yelling about the loud music, we all froze. "Who are these boys, anyway?" he said, frowning at Ollie, Darry, and Daniel, who he'd known practically forever.
WOODSONAt first, we thought he was kidding. I said, "Daddy, stop playing." Then he said, "Do I look like I'm playing?" And left the room, slamming the door so hard, the whole room shook. After that, we all just went to bed, didn't stay up to say happy new year, didn't try to wait to see if the world was going to end. My daddy had never yelled at us kids, so in some way, the world as we had always known it had already ended.
NNAMDIJacqueline Woodson, reading from "Before the Ever After: Maplewood 2000." God, mm. That's very emotional for everybody who listened to it. And thank you for sharing it. Dillon, nine, who goes to Chevy Chase Elementary School, asks: How many edits do you have to do to write a book? How many times do you check your work? And do they make you edit more after you've given them the final copy? (laugh) The answers are yes, yes, yes and yes.
WOODSON(laugh) Yes, yes, yes. "Brown Girl Dreaming" was rewritten 30 times before I stopped counting. Everything I write, I read out loud. It has to sound a certain way, as well as look a certain way on the page. I never think there is a final copy. (laugh) I mean, even when I publish a book, I still see places where I'm, like, oh, I should've changed that, oh, I should've written that differently.
WOODSONBut once you write the book and you publish the book and the book goes out into the world, it's not yours anymore. It belongs to the world, and they can find your errors. They can say I don't believe that character because you said one thing on one page and something on another page. They can say, "He just had on a green shirt, and why is his shirt now black?"
WOODSONLike, all these mistakes that you make when you don't rewrite and reread and let somebody else read and then give you pointers on how to rewrite. And I always say, with work, you know, show it to people you trust, and they will tell you the truth in a kind way, right. You don't want to show it to people who are going to say, oh, this is terrible. You want to show it to people who have questions to say, wow, this is amazing. I'm really curious about fill-in-the-blank.
WOODSONSo, I rewrite a lot. "Before the Ever After," I had to do a lot of research about. I didn't know a lot about CTE. I knew a good bit about football. I've never lived in Maplewood, New Jersey. I had to research that. And I had to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. And I would say I'm not a writer, I'm a rewriter. I rewrite everything, you know, and I lose count of the times.
NNAMDIWhy did you choose to write about head injuries in the first place, and are you suggesting that kids just shouldn't play football?
WOODSONI'm suggesting -- one thing about football, is it's a beautiful game, right.
WOODSONAnd I talk about the beauty of it. It's amazing. It's the way people end up getting out of poverty. It's the way people end up getting to be famous. You know, it's the American "pastime," quote-unquote. And it's a sport that has hurt many, many, many black and brown bodies. And I think that -- and white, you know. And I think that like everything that we engage with or look at, we should think critically about. And we should know all sides of a story. And I think the story of CTE is a very unspoken one.
WOODSONAnd so, I'm not saying don't go out there and don't play football and -- you know, I'm saying, let's talk about this. Let's talk about what it means to lose someone who's still alive. And, at the end of the day, a book like "Before the Ever After" isn't just about CTE. It's about memory. It's about losing someone who's lost their memory, and that happens all kinds of ways. That happens with dementia, Alzheimer's. The happens with other kinds of head injuries, you know.
WOODSONAnd so, I think it's a book that a lot of us know the story of in some way, shape or form. And, in this case, it's about football, which I also hope that we take a long, hard look at. It's also about, one thing that disturbs me about football is the way brown bodies get owned and traded. That (laugh) makes me think of enslavement, and the way that in this country, that has to be a way out for people.
WOODSONJust like Kim Jones talks about in -- I don't know if you saw the video where she's talking about people writing, because what they're destroying is stuff they don't own. I think about football and the way that, you know, where are the black team owners? There's a lot to really look at and think about, and that's the case with everything we touch and everything we see. I think it's really important to take a critical look at it.
NNAMDIAmiri Baraka referred to them as highly paid slaves. That was a long time ago. Here is 11-year-old Max at Chevy Chase Elementary. Max, your turn.
MAXOkay. Hello. My question is, what inspired you to just decide, okay, I'm becoming an author? And did you ever consider doing something else?
NNAMDI(laugh) You're not good enough for this job. (laugh)
WOODSONYou know, my family was very concerned about me being an author. They thought I would never make any money. They thought I would -- you know, it was hard...
WOODSONStarve, exactly, and never move out of their house. (laugh) You know, I think they didn't understand art, what it meant to be an artist. And so, I would say I was going to be a teacher. I would say I was going to be a lawyer. I would say I was going to be a hairdresser. Whatever they wanted to hear, but I knew I was lying. I knew the thing I loved doing most was writing.
WOODSONAnd I knew even if I had to have another job, that I would continue to write, even if writing never paid me money, even if I, you know, had to struggle, because writing was the thing that brought me joy. And I had a teacher who said, when you choose a career, choose something you love doing, because you are going to be doing it for the rest of your life. And that's what writing -- you know, writing, I've been doing for 30 years, and I'm so happy that this is the career I chose, because I couldn't imagine not being a writer. I couldn't imagine.
WOODSONI love waking up and sitting down at my desk and creating stories. So, I wanted to play for the NBA, at one time. I thought I was going to be 6' tall, because I'm the shortest person in my family. I'm 5'10", but everyone else is 6'2", 6'3", 6'4", and I thought I was going to be the first woman drafted, because I grew up before the WNBA. And so, to me, being a writer seemed more realistic than playing for the NBA.
NNAMDIIt would appear, as an NBA player, you'd be ambidextrous. Apparently, you write with your right hand, do other things with your right hand, but if you bat or shoot the ball, you do that with your left hand.
WOODSONYes. Yeah, yeah. And I write with my notebook sideways. I used to write with it upside down, and I think a teacher fixed that, so now -- but I can't sign books. I can't write without my notebook being sideways. So, I write, you know, in this up-and-down way. People look at it and kind of wonder what's wrong with me, but it's worked for me so far. (laugh)
NNAMDIThat rare ambidextrous person I always envied. Besides publishing your new book, another important thing happened to you this year. You got one of the more famous awards, which is known as the MacArthur Genius Grant. It comes with a grant of more than $600,000. What did you get this award for, and what do you plan on doing with the money? If it's not too personal.
WOODSONI got -- no, not at all. You know, it's interesting. I'm just going to give you a little bit of backstory, if we have a minute.
NNAMDIThat's about all we have.
WOODSONIn 2018 I got the -- okay. So, I got the Astrid Lindgren Award, which was $650,000, was from the Swedish government. And the question they could not ask is what you're going to do with the money. Here, everyone asks what I'm going to do with the money. I'm building a residency for BIPOC artists, for black indigenous people of color. It's called Baldwin for the Arts. It's already -- the website is up. And it's a place where visual artists, composers and writers can come to do their work, no charge. They get three meals a day and they just get an artist community and a place to create.
NNAMDIAbsolutely fascinating. Thank you so much for doing that, and thank you so much, well, for being you. Jacqueline Woodson, thank you so much for joining us.
WOODSONThanks for having me. I love your show.
WOODSONJacqueline Woodson is a MacArthur Fellow and author of more than 30 books, including "Brown Girl Dreaming" and the recently published "Before the Ever After." Today's show on holiday markets was produced by Ines Renique. And Kojo for Kids was produced by Lauren Markoe.
WOODSONComing up tomorrow, a favorite Kojo tradition continues. It's our winter reading show. We'll discuss all the books that have helped get us through these trying times and share ideas for gifts for the book lovers in your life. We'll also have one of our favorite guests. She's a former Kojo Show producer, Tayla Burney. And perhaps we'll tip you off to your next great book. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thanks for listening and stay safe.
WOODSONA quick update from last week's Kojo for Kids. Six-year-old Juniper from D.C. called in to say she lost her cat. Well, we're happy to report that Juniper did get her cat back. And now we know that cat's name is Neeso. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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