Jacqueline Woodson a New York Times bestseller and winner of awards"too numerous to mention" talked this Sunday morning with her editor Nancy Paulsen an "editor of unheralded reputation." After introducing them Lin Oliver, co-founder of SCBWI, explained how excited SCBWI was to be a virtual fly on the wall for their collaborative conversations. Being able to watch just how these two women were so enthusiastic about their work and joyful to share their canon was an honor.
Paulsen began the conversation by setting the scene. She painted a picture of life in the 90s, "listening to Micheal Jackson and dancing off the wall." Paulsen met Woodson after winning the Coretta Scot King award, Woodson had several books published in several publishing houses and had "never thought" of the "canon" of her work. Her agent suggested her book to be auctioned and it was the first auction of a children's book in history. Many publishing houses wanted to simply pay her the low rate they had been paying and sent her to "kick rocks." This is where Paulsen comes in; she was "blown away by the lyrical quality [of Woodson's books] and [loved that] they were short too!
The shop talk started here, with Woodson speaking about how she struggled with Point of View while writing If You Come Softly. She decided to have Ellie's POV be first person while Jeremiah's POV be third person because he is no longer alive to share his story. Woodson explained that since social media wasn't necessarily a thing at the time, there wasn't any widespread videos or other documentation of the police brutality that Black communities face.
It was surprising for Woodson to hear many people didn't believe that a Black boy would be killed by police in the book. Unfortunately, these occurrences were normal in Black and brown communities. Woodson continued, talking abut editors roles in the writing process. Editors are "putting these slits through your page to let your light come through," she explained. Paulsen chimed in regarding the bending of restrictions around Young Adult and Middle Grade labels saying, "we worked around that." She explained the shift from previous publishing houses, and how middle grade wasn't so clearly defined when Woodson's books were first being published so even now they flip between middle-grade and YA labels. Paulsen talked about Woodsons dedication to reading her work aloud to work through any problems and how Paulsen herself is now doing the same with any book shes working on.
Woodson spoke about the loss of her grandmother 4 months before she was pregnant with her daughter and how this spurred Show Way, her first picture book, and it's focus on matriarchal lineages. They described the process of finding an illustrator for picture books, Woodson expressing that she did get to pick her illustrator though "not a lot of people get to do that." The process for them is simple, consisting of Paulsen sending over illustrators for Woodson to choose from. Woodson explains that when she first wrote The Other Side it was a story about present day segregation but when E.B Lewis finished the illustrations they were all set in the past. She loved the work but recalls she felt like "this wasn't my book." She laughs about it with Paulsen asking, "remember I was so cranky?" She had to tweak the writing of the book adding quick lines such as, "that's my blouse on the line," to further place the book in the time the illustrations showed. Sp many folks were impacted by the book she calls it the illustrations a blessing in disguise. They both believe having it be set in the past helped its' marketability so to speak. Paulsen explaining that setting in the past makes folks more comfortable imagining segregation as an issue of days gone by. Woodson agrees, explaining that she can use the book in classrooms as an entry to speaking about the segregation that still occurs today. Later, Laurie Halse Anderson, another New York Times best seller with her own panel on Tuesday and friend of the pair, asks "is it possible that the time has come to reissue The Other Side with the illustrations Jackie was first thinking about?" "That's interesting!" Paulsen nods. Lin Oliver, moderating the Q and A section, laughs, "I think she wants an answer." Paulsen laughs along and says, "I've learned not to give an answer on the spot."
Brown Girl Dreaming is the next book they tackle and echo a sentiment from yesterdays conversation with Kwame Alexander and Raul the Third; being an overnight best seller is years of hard work. Woodson set out to write this book to figure out how she became a "not so great student by any means to Jacqueline Woodson." As she wrote she felt as if the book was "so specific to me that I felt it was irrelevant in a way it simply was not." She rewrote the book over 30 times, and with it's success she was surprised with just how many people connected with her work. She laughs as she remembers that some white men had called her and told her of their experience being coached by her grandfather and their love for him and the book. She says she "learned we are part of something bigger." She reads the first poem of her multi-award winner as well, and here one can hear the lyrical quality Paulsen was speaking about. The music of Woodson's words beautifully burst through. Speaking of music, Woodson and Paulson both agree that there is an art in listening. Woodson believes "you can't be a writer if you're not listening- engaging with the world." For Woodson that listening comes with an almost scary accuracy to see precisely where her stories were coming from, she doesn't want to mess with that process too much so she tries not to pinpoint them often.
The conversation pivots to Woodson's '98 Horn Book essay, "Who Tells My Story" which is as important today as it was when first published. Paulsen believes that "you can write about people you know." Multicultural children's books, as they used to be called, started off with white authors using a "color by numbers" rubric on their books. They would make the best friend of the main character Black and then wonder why kids of color wouldn't read the books. Woodson explains that kids can see right through these types of books. Paulsen agrees and says that her imprint at Penguin is dedicated to books that can be read aloud in classrooms, books that let readers be in "someones else's shoes." She looks for "the kinds of books that win states awards, the ones kids vote on." They both recall the anger of some folks at Each Kindness, specifically its' ending. Woodson laughs, stating "it made them feel some type of way!" She believes it's the loss of a chance to change bad behavior that upset people. She continues, explaining that she was very deliberate writing Maya as a strong character rather than "beaten down." She wanted to pay homage to those kids in the world who felt the same as Maya and center them.
To close the conversation, Woodson reads her most recent picture book The Day You Begin, and dear reader I'm not afraid to admit I teared up. Once again the musicality of Woodson's words beautifully bursts through and the story is only more lovely. Inspired by her poem "it'll be scary" in Brown Girl Dreaming, it assures readers that there will be folks out there who share your stories. Once in the Q&A section, Woodson was asked what the most rewarding part of writing was. "All of it," was her response. The ever present question of writing for an audience or for yourself was asked. Woodson explained that she writes for herself first and foremost, "I don't think folks should worry about audience too much." She asks herself how she will mold her writing, whether it'll be middle grade, young adult, or otherwise.
She writes responsibly and kindly, making sure that the kids she writes for will be cared for in the worlds she writes. She answers that her writing is always character driven, asking herself "what does a character wants and how will they get there?" Paulsen offers some generative questions that inspire deeper insight into a manuscript; they include "Who're their people?" and "I want to know more." When Woodson is asked if she has different processes for different genres, she laughs and answers, "Long time ago I would've said yes but now no." She explains that her writing has gotten more poetic across the board citing intentional behind line breaks as an example. For folks eager to know which book she wrote that had taken 4 days, she laughs again and says she misspoke; the shortest one she had written was about two weeks. She smiles, "don't aspire to a 4 day book y'all, it won't be any good!"