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Jacqueline Woodson. If you don’t know her, you should. Not just because she’s one of the premier writers for young people (whose career I’ve followed since I was a high school student), who happens to be African American, who happens to be a New Yorker. Not because her memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2014. But because here’s a woman who can answer her some reader-questions.

Jacqueline Woodson on stage

Apologies, Ms. Woodson. This photo is . . . lacking.

The first time I saw Ms. Woodson on a tour for her then newly published picture book Show Way, children lined up to ask questions. I was amused. Impressed. A toddler approached the mic in her mother’s arms.

My second experience was at the Cambridge Public Library as part of Cambridge Reads. Children waited patiently in two lines and spoke with bravery, curiosity, clarity, humor, and the desire to know. Be known.

Book fan reads along with speaker

Here we see a fan reading along in Brown Girl Dreaming. No KIDDING.

Okay, I thought, this is a thing. In all the author talks, book signings and panels I’ve attended in my 30+ years, I’ve never seen such thoughtful and relentless interest from children as at Woodson events. Is it because Jacqueline speaks to them as she would any person, child or adult? Is it because the first child asked a question that didn’t even touch the perennial ‘where do you get your ideas’, and broke some kind of good-question seal?

In my experience, in mixed groups of adults and children it’s usually the adults who dominate. Not here. Adults stand back: the true creatives have arrived.

Reading #1: Monday, March 12, 2007, 6:30 PM

Jacqueline Woodson’s Author Visit at BPL Connolly Branch (JP) 2007
“This celebrated author of children’s and teen books will discuss some of her work, including her new novel Feathers. The event will include a question and answer session and a book sale and signing (courtesy of Jamaicaway Books). Co-sponsored by the Foundation for Children’s Books. For ages 5 and up.”

Questions (items in parenthesis are my notes):

  1. Are there men in (the picture book) Show Way?
  2. What inspired you to write (the middle grade novel) Mazion at Blue Hill?
  3. Do your books affect your emotions [while you’re writing them]? (asked by little boy)
  4. Do you research?
  5. Did you need to go to college?
  6. What did you lie about when you were little? (In her talk, Woodson explained that, as a child, she was a terrific liar. She was fortunate enough to have a teacher tell her that, instead of lying, she should ‘write it down, because then it will be fiction.’)
  7. What’s your favorite genre?
  8. Did you have a favorite author when you were growing up?
  9. What kind of books did you like best? (Answer: poetry)
  10. Did the song “Locomotion” inspire you while you wrote your (middle grade) book Locomotion?
  11. Are your characters actual or made-up people?
  12. Which of your books do you like the most?
  13. Who was your favorite teacher?
  14. Why did you write Locomotion in verse? (Asked twice)
  15. Where do you get the titles?
  16. Did you achieve any of your goals that you had in 5th grade?
  17. What advice would you give to young writers? (Answer: Read. Write 2x a day. Believe that you have a story to tell. Call yourself a writer. Show your writing to people that you trust.)
  18. What make you choose writing? (Answer: Couldn’t have a career in professional basketball.)

Reading #2: Wednesday, November 18, 2015, 7:00 PM

Cambridge Reads, November 18, 2015, Fitzgerald Theater, 7:00 PM
“Brown Girl Dreaming—a memoir of the Woodson’s childhood written in verse—is the recipient of the 2014 National Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, a Newbery Honor Award, the NAACP Image Award, and the Sibert Honor Award.

Jacqueline Woodson is the author of over two dozen award-winning books for young adults and children, including The Other Side, Each Kindness, Coming on Home Soon, Locomotion, Miracle’s Boys, After Tupac and D Foster, Feathers, and Hush. She is a four-time winner of the Newbery Honor Award, a three-time finalist for the National Book Award, and was recently named the Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation.

Cambridge READS, the Cambridge Public Library’s citywide book club, promotes the love of reading and facilitates community conversations about books. It includes book discussions at the Main Library and its six branches, and culminates in an appearance by the featured author.”

Questions (items in parenthesis are my notes):

  1. Do you have any messages of empowerment? (This was the FIRST question!)
  2. Are you still religious? Do you still practice [Islam]?
  3. What inspired you to start writing?
  4. How did you feel when you first saw your brother Roman?
  5. What was your favorite subject in school?
  6. At what age did you fall in love with writing?
  7. Did writing come naturally [to you]?
  8. What was the biggest change that empowered you as a person?
  9. What was wrong with the word ‘funk’?
  10. What was your reaction to meeting your dad for the first time
  11. Does Roman have a different dad?
  12. [What] did it feel like going over the memories after all those years?
  13. Why did you call your book Brown Girl Dreaming?
  14. Was it uncomfortable when your parents got back together when you were older?
  15. How did you feel when you were done writing your book?
  16. Is there one place you hold dearer in the places you’ve lived? (‘Dearer.’ I struggled to contain my internal squee)
  17. Can you tell me the name of Roman’s father (Jacqueline: Sorry. No!)
  18. Everything that was happening around you, did it stress you out?
  19. Did your mom know the walls were painted with lead paint?
  20. Did you like being Jehovah’s Witness when you were young?
  21. Your first [draft] in pencil, or did you type it? (Jacqueline: pencil)
  22. Were you dyslexic in reading as a kid?
  23. What poem is your favorite in the book?
  24. Are you a New England Patriots [football] fan? (Jacqueline: “I plead the fifth.”)
  25. What inspired you to write [the novel] Locomotion?
  26. Are you still connected to your friends from way back when?
  27. Which [of your] book[s] was the most fun to write?
  28. When was your first book published?
  29. Why are you so poet? (verbatim: so poet)
  30. Will you be writing a new book soon?
  31. When your mother died, did you take a break from writing?
  32. If you could pick another career, what would it be? (see: basketball)
  33. Are you still close to your siblings and your uncle?
  34. When do you know when you’re done with a book?
  35. How did you get started writing Brown Girl Dreaming?
  36. What’s your favorite book?
  37. Do you start by writing your ideas in your head?
  38. You know when you were a kid, you couldn’t eat pork. Do you eat it now?
  39. How did you survive without cupcakes?
  40. You wrote a lowercase ‘I’ [on page ?]? Why? (Jacqueline: That’s an error!)
  41. [Which] do you like more, Feathers or Brown Girl Dreaming?
  42. Did you book about butterflies ever get published?
  43. What is your favorite book of the ones you’ve written?
  44. Does your brother Hope still sing?
  45. What was your least favorite poem in Brown Girl Dreaming? (Jacqueline: Those didn’t make it into the book)
  46. What’s your favorite genre to write?
  47. When your brother went to the hospital, did you regret how you felt about him earlier?
  48. Do you ever come up with ideas and then forget them? How do you deal with having more ideas than you can keep up with?

Jacqueline concluded here, but there were more kids who attempted to join the line. They could have gone all night.

So. I look at these two lists of questions and my first thought is: whoa, Cambridge. My second thought: these children (thankfully) have not yet perfected the unfortunate art of long-declarative-statement-masquerading-as-question. Third: I didn’t mean to spend the evening typing out questions (with my thumbs, on an iPod) but I couldn’t help myself. They were too good.

And you, faithful WHL reader, get to share the bounty.

Children wait in line to ask quetions

The line v2

Look to photo’s center. See all those kids? Now double that number.