Born February 12 in
Columbus, Ohio, Jacqueline Woodson grew up in Greenville, South
Carolina and Brooklyn, New York and graduated from college with
a B.A. in English. A former drama therapist for runaways and
homeless children in New York City, she now writes full-time and
has received The Kenyon Review Award for Literary Excellence in
Fiction. Though she spends most of her time writing, Woodson
also enjoys reading the works of emerging writers, encouraging
young people to write, heated political conversation with her
friends, and sewing. At one time, she made most of her own
clothing, but now she makes mostly scarves and quilts for her
Jacqueline Woodson began to consider becoming a writer when she
was chosen to be the literary editor of a magazine in the fifth
grade. Eventually, three books helped convince her to pursue a
writing career: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Daddy
Was a Numbers-Runner by Louise Meriwether, and Ruby
by Rosa Guy. Before reading those books, Woodson thought that
only books featuring mainstream, white characters or works by
William Shakespeare constituted valid literature. But in those
three books, Woodson saw parts of herself and her life, and
realized that books could be about people like her; and she knew
she wanted to write them.
Now a critically acclaimed author, Woodson writes about
characters from a variety of races, ethnic groups, and social
classes. Woodson says, "There are all kinds of people in the
world, and I want to help introduce readers to the kinds of
people they might not otherwise meet." Woodson's books also
feature strong female characters. Some are based on her friends,
who she says are "really amazing people who constantly
challenge themselves to make a difference in the world."
Woodson often writes about friendship between girls, as she did
in her trilogy about Maizon, and I Hadn't Meant to
Tell You This. "Girls rarely get discussed in books and
films," she says, "and I want to do 'girl stories' that
show strong, independent people. I think girls are often
disregarded in this society and taught to be dependent. I want
to show young people that there are other ways to be."
The House You Pass on the Way is a moving story of
growing up different. It explores questions about emerging
sexuality with sensitivity and respect and examines racial
tension and the legacy of violence. In a starred review,
Publishers Weekly noted, "[Woodson] gently probes questions
regarding racism and homosexuality in this poignant tale about
growing pains and the ongoing process of self-discovery."
Also in a starred review, The Horn Book wrote of The
House You Pass on the Way, "[A] reflective book.... The reader
feels grateful that Woodson has whispered her lyrical story to
us...." School Library Journal remarked that Woodson's novel
is, "Richly layered.... Notable both for its quality and for
the out-of-the-way places it goes."
book, Lena (April 1998, Delacorte Press), is the
companion to the Coretta Scott King Honor Book, I Hadn't
Meant to Tell You This. In a starred review, Publishers
Weekly claims Lena is "soulful, wise...this taut story never
loses its grip on the reader."
When she was a child, her Brooklyn neighbors were mostly
Hispanic and African American. "Everything from the food I
grew up eating to the music I learned to dance to had the
flavors of both the South and Puerto Rico," she remembers.
This background has served her well as a writer because the
characters in her fiction are from a variety of ethnic groups
and social classes.
Woodson often writes about
difficult issues that young people face and characters who feel
out of place. "I think, growing up, I felt like I was on the
outside a lot; and I think, as a grownup, I've… realized that
it's okay to be on the outside," she says. If she has a single
message to share with readers, it's that "no matter who you are
in the world, it's okay to be who you are."
Jacqueline Woodson's advice
to young writers is this: "Write every single day, at least
for thirty minutes — just sit down and write in your diary or
write a letter to a friend or write a poem or anything, but just
try to practice writing every day." She also recommends
reading books by writers you admire.
My career as a writer started when I was in about
the fifth grade. I used to write on everything; it was the thing
I liked to do the most. I never thought I could have a career as
a writer--I always thought it was something I would have to do
on the side. And then I had an English teacher when I was in the
seventh grade, who said, "You should think really hard about
the career you choose and make sure it's something that you
really like because you're going to spend the rest of your life
doing it." And the thing I really liked to do was write, so
I started playing around with the idea of one day becoming a
of the biggest influences on me as a child was that English
teacher, who told me that I wrote really well. And I think
another influence was picking up books and not seeing people who
looked like myself or who came from the same neighborhoods as I
did. I knew that I wanted to write about communities that were
familiar to me and people that were familiar to me. I wanted to
write about communities of color. I wanted to write about girls.
I wanted to write about friendship and all of these things that
I felt like were missing in a lot of the books that I read as a
I like a lot of authors. Some of my favorites are Mildred
Taylor, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor,
Patricia MacLachlan, and Rosa Guy. Those are some of the people
that I read growing up, and some of the people that I discovered
as a grown-up.
I was inspired to write I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This
for a lot of reasons. I really wanted to write about friendship.
I really wanted to write about people crossing racial lines to
be friends, and people crossing class lines. I wanted to write
about what it meant to be a girl in this society, in a society
where self-esteem seems to go down when you reach a certain age.
And the characters just started coming to me.
There are a lot of themes in I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This
that I feel strongly about. I feel strongly about the theme
of friendship across race lines. And I feel strongly about the
issue of sexual abuse in terms of our real society, where the
statistics tell you that three out of four girls are sexually
abused. I wanted to write about that because that is such a high
number of people--and I wanted to write about how people feel so
alone, how they feel like, "Oh, it's only me that this is
happening to and therefore it is my fault." And Lena started
coming out of that, my desire to write about that. I wanted to
write about freedom...how it's okay to feel like you need to be
free of something and it's okay to have to leave sometimes. I
wanted to write about when it's okay to leave and okay to stay.
And I wanted to write about the idea of being on the outside. I
think, growing up, I felt like I was on the outside a lot; and I
think as a grown-up, I've sort of come to terms with that, and
realized that it's okay to be on the outside.
One of the questions I get asked a lot is what started me
writing. I received the most fan mail for I Hadn't Meant to
Tell You This. And so many people asked me, "Why did you
write this book?" And a lot of people asked me, "What
happened to Lena in I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This?" I get
asked a lot about what can a person do to become a writer.
I think it's really important if a young person wants to write,
for them to write every day. And it's hard sometimes. It's so
much easier to turn on the television or turn on a video game or
go outside and hang out. But you really have to write every
single day, at least for thirty minutes--just sitting down and
writing in your diary or writing a letter to a friend or writing
a poem or anything, but just try to practice writing every day.
And the other way I learned how to write was by reading so much.
I would read a book by Toni Morrison and say, "I want to
write like this one day." And I think that other authors
taught me how to write. I didn't really take a whole lot of
writing classes, I learned it from reading. So I say read and
One of the most important ideas I want to get across to my
readers is the idea of feeling like you're okay with who you
are. I just think my characters are always feeling kind of
awkward somewhere and then they kind of find themselves, and to
me, that's about saying, "Look, this is who I am, this is who
I always will be." I think that it's really important that
we come to terms with who we are and like the person we are. A
lot of times when I see girls slouching or see them sitting
quietly in classrooms, I start thinking, "This person does
not like themselves." That's so heart breaking to me and I
think I'm trying to write past that, to show people that no
matter who you are in the world, it's okay to be who you are.
Other Books Written by Jacqueline