The first Jacqueline Woodson book I read was Locomotion. The previous teacher had moved to younger pastures and had left this book behind as part of her classroom library, and it was one of the few books there that I hadn’t yet read, so I picked it up during testing week so I’d have something to do while I walked around the room supervising my students. (This, at least, is the story I remember about finding it. These fifth graders are now in college, so my memory might be faulty!) I didn’t finish it during the day, but it was so compelling that I had to keep reading it after school until I was done. My heart ached for Lonnie (the main character), and I could see parts of him reflected in so many of my students that year. I would see the author’s name on different library lists and book recommendations, but I didn’t personally happen across another of her books until Each Kindness showed up at the book fair when GirlChild was a kindergartener. Another heartbreaker. Then I found Peace, Locomotion as an audiobook for my Y treadmill distraction. Every book made me fight back tears, her characters so real and so fragile, the endings often leaving a feeling of dissatisfaction, the knowledge that things aren’t perfect or completed, and there is something left for the reader to do. Last month, I was looking up a Newbery Award year, and I noticed her name as an honor recipient. And then again. And again.
And I decided I needed to do a blog post on some of her works for young readers. [Jacqueline Woodson book list]
Pecan Pie Baby, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (2010, early to middle elementary): Gia is sick and tired of all the talk about the “ding-dang baby”! It’s been just her and her mom for so long, and now there’s a new baby due to arrive “by the time the first snow’s on the ground,” and it’s all anyone can talk about–her aunts, her uncles, even her friends! Her mom tells her that the baby loves pecan pie, just like she and Gia do, but Gia just thinks the baby is being a copycat. At Thanksgiving dinner, she’s had about enough, and her angry outburst shocks everyone and gets her sent to her room. When her mother joins her later, she shares that she, too, will miss the fun they had, just the two of them, and that Gia will have to tell the baby all about “the good old days.” When Mama says that the weatherman is forecasting snow, the two of them go to have some dessert before “that ding-dang pecan pie baby” comes, and they laugh because Gia knows her mother knows, like she does, “how much the three of us loved ourselves some pecan pie!”
Each Kindness, illustrated by E. B. Lewis (2012, early to middle elementary): This picture book evokes similar feelings to those brought up by The Hundred Dresses. Maya is the new girl in school, and Chloe and the other children look disdainfully at her shabby clothing and refuse to return her friendly smiles and other overtures. She continues to make her attempts at friendliness and accept the unwarranted rebuffs with grace until one day in the spring when the children laugh outright at her pretty but secondhand dress, and she goes off to jump rope alone without asking anyone to join her. The next day, she is absent, and Ms. Albert teaches a lesson on the ripple effect of kindness, saying, “Each kindness…makes the whole world a little better.” Guilt over her behavior toward Maya grips her, and Chloe is desperate for an opportunity to return Maya’s smiles. However, Maya never returns; her family has had to move. In the end, Chloe tosses stones into the river and thinks about how each kindness “done and undone” makes its mark.
Visiting Day, illustrated by James E. Ransome (2002, early to middle elementary): It took me a while to figure out that Visiting Day wasn’t a custody arrangement visitation or maybe a hospital visit that the little girl (never named) is anticipating with such excitement, but I’m thinking a child who has experienced an incarcerated parent might pick up on it right away. The little girl and her grandma are up early preparing–Grandma frying chicken and humming, braiding the little girl’s hair, and getting items from a neighbor who can’t afford the trip to bring them to her son. They board the bus along with other visiting families, and they all share a picnic on the ride. The little girl falls asleep and doesn’t wake up until they arrive at the “big old building where…Daddy is doing a little time.” One page spread is dedicated to the time she spends with her father, and the very next shows their separation again, Grandma reminding her that “it’s not forever going to be like this.” Then the girl and her grandmother return home again, already missing and planning for their next visit, and anticipating even more when her daddy will be home again with them. I absolutely love the art in this one; there are subtle bits of information half-hidden in the background–blurry photographs of a man and a girl all around the apartment, hints at an institutional setting when the father is first shown, expressions so real and so telling that they speak as much as the words do.
Coming on Home Soon, illustrated by E. B. Lewis (2004, early to middle elementary): This Caldecott Honor book is set during World War II, and Ada Ruth’s mother has gone to Chicago to work for the railroad and support the family. Ada Ruth writes to her often, but a long time goes by without a response or any money sent back, and Grandma tells her to keep writing and that her mother will be “coming on home soon.” Winter comes, and with it a small black kitten that her grandmother insists can’t stay–but is allowed to anyway. Whenever the postman passes without stopping, they are both disappointed, but one day, after hunting for small game in the snow, they finally get the long-awaited letter that contains not only money but the promise that Ada Ruth’s mother will be “coming on home soon.” In the last pages, Ada Ruth relaxes in feelings of peace and remembering her mother’s love and her promise that she’s returning, and the very last page has no words but shows her mother, suitcase in hand, approaching their home through the snow.
Show Way, illustrated by Hudson Talbott (2005, early to middle elementary): Listed on her website as having “autobiographical content,” this tells the story of her family’s history as it was passed along through the female line. The first is her several-greats-grandmother who is sold at age seven and went to live in another state. There, the resident “grandma” taught the children stories of getting to freedom and showed them how to sew quilts that held a sort of coded map to help slaves escape. That woman grew up and taught her daughter how to sew, and that child was sold at age seven, and she both sewed clothing for the “big house” and the other slaves and also the same quilt maps–what they called a “Show Way.” Her daughter, Soonie, was born free in 1863, and she was told the old stories and taught to quilt, and she sewed the quilts to make a living. Her daughter Georgianna was a quick learner, and she had twin daughters named Ann (the author’s mother) and Caroline. When they were seven, they participated in civil rights marches, gripping pieces of one of the old quilts to help them be brave. When the author was seven, she “didn’t have to work in a field or walk in any Freedom lines,” but she learned to sew and learned the stories of her heritage as a kind of personal “Show Way.” And the author, too, passes these stories and this legacy of bravery and love to her own daughter.
Locomotion (2003) and Peace, Locomotion (2009, upper elementary to middle school): I had recently finished reading Love That Dog with a group of students, and this book parallels that one in a lot of ways. Firstly, the main character, the narrator, is a boy who has a knack for poetry if not an automatic respect for it. Their teachers prompt them to continue to explore the different forms of poetry, and each uses poetry to work through a traumatic event from his past that continues to impact his life. Where the narrator of Love that Dog is mourning the loss of his pet, Lonnie is working through the loss of his parents and the realities of his life in foster care, separated from his little sister. The sequel, Peace, Locomotion, features letters that Lonnie writes to his sister (always signed “Peace, Locomotion”) but doesn’t send, and he is working through his resentment that she has seems to forget their parents in her eagerness to have a mama who is right here with her (her adoptive mother) as well as the internal struggles with his perceptions of Miss Edna (his adoptive mother) and the war that harmed one of her sons. I wasn’t able to get a copy of either of these books to reread, but the stories have stuck with me! While her books for younger readers touch on tough subjects, too, these books for the upper elementary and middle school crowd dig deeper and force readers to face difficult topics head on but still in an age-appropriate way.
Feathers (2007, upper elementary to middle school): Set in the 1970s, when a new boy joins Frannie’s all-black classroom, his appearance (white with long, curly hair) and demeanor (gentle but unafraid of confrontation) earn him the nickname “Jesus Boy” and a whole lot of rejection and harassment. Frannie’s dealing with her own problems with the stigma that her deaf brother faces, her increasingly religiously zealous friend Samantha who seems to almost idolize the Jesus Boy, and the fact that her 40-year-old mother is facing a difficult pregnancy after already experiencing the loss of a baby before her two living children were born and several others since then. Still, she comes to see the Jesus Boy as a person, and some other pigeon-holed classmates like one, too, as she thinks more deeply about the complexities of living. The line of poetry she had loved the sound of but hadn’t understood becomes more clear, as well: “Hope is the thing with feathers” becomes “Each moment is a thing with feathers” to her. Each moment of life holds hope. This book was a 2008 Newbery Honor book.
I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This (1994) and Lena (1999, upper elementary to middle school): The subject matter of these two books is pretty bleak, to be honest, but it is dealt with in such a delicate but forthright way that I feel the books will enlighten as many as they help through tough times. I’m pretty much going to just lay out the issues addressed in the book: cancer and death, racism, abandonment, neglect, molestation, and runaways. I actually read these two books out of order, not knowing they were companion books, but it worked out fine that way, too. I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This is told in first-person from the point-of-view of Marie, a black girl who is the only child of a professor and whose mother has left them to travel the world. When Lena, a girl Marie’s father and many classmates refer to as “whitetrash,” comes to her school, Marie is assigned to help her get acquainted with things. Marie can see a brokenness in her, and she befriends her and her younger sister. Lena eventually confides to Marie that her father began touching her after her mother died of cancer. When he turns his attentions to her younger sister, she begins preparing to leave in order to protect her. The book ends somewhat abruptly with Lena calling Marie to tell her that they’ve left, and Marie seeing their empty house and hoping that they have found their safety and happiness. Lena is told from Lena’s point of view, and it chronicles what happens as she and her sister Dion hitchhike away from their father (with whom it’s revealed they weren’t supposed to be living after Lena first told someone about the molestation and they were removed from the home and separated). They are trying to get to their mother’s hometown in Kentucky, hoping that their relatives will take them in, but reality sets in as Lena realizes that if this family didn’t bother to respond when they were notified of her mother’s death, they likely were either all gone or didn’t care. When a kindly woman takes them in for the night after seeming to believe their story that they were trying to get to their mother who had just had a baby, Lena gets the courage to call Marie and tell her what is happening. In the end, perhaps contrary to what would likely happen in reality, Marie’s father, once he discovers what has really been going on with the sisters, wants to bring them home to live with him and Marie.
Brown Girl Dreaming (2014, upper elementary to middle school): In a style that expands on that found in Locomotion, the author tells her personal story in free verse. A story that reveals the turmoil and transitions that characterized the world in which she grew up and her world at home as she grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, this Newbery Honor book helps the reader see how the author became the writer she is, how her childhood successes and disappointments, joys and trials, gains and losses, and her family relationships shaped her life and her work. With contents much more engaging than a typical autobiography, there are also family trees and a number of old photographs of Ms. Woodson and many of her family members.
Jacqueline Woodson has written many other books for younger readers that I wasn’t able to get my hands on or finish in time, and she has written a number for older teens that have content too mature for the scope of this blog. She has a way of telling things how they are and making readers question if that’s how they should be, and I find her work to have an important place in children’s and YA literature. Her readers always have to think, and then they have to decide what to do with what they’ve learned about themselves and the world.
And, depending on the book, they may weep.