It was a sunny and mild Tuesday evening in central Stockholm, the perfect night for an afterwork drink or dinner outside, but a few hundred of us sat in a darkened auditorium on the third floor of Kulturhuset, eagerly awaiting acclaimed American writer, Jacqueline Woodson. Woodson would soon begin a conversation with literature professor Elina Druker as the 2018 Laureate of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA), the world’s largest prize for children’s and young adult literature.
Ironically, I first heard of Woodson through her second novel of adult fiction, Another Brooklyn (2016), a story about female friendship set in the 1970s. I spent a lot of time as a kid in pre-gentrified Brooklyn; it was an era that I remembered well and was keen to see represented in literature. However, it’s Woodson’s work as a children’s author, portraying young characters (usually between ten to sixteen years old) and worlds not typically depicted in that genre, that has won her accolades and a beloved following.
Working with themes such as racism, segregation, socio-economic inequality and sexual identity, Woodson challenges us to reconsider what comprises “children’s literature;” to confront our own prejudices and comfort level; and to give young people their due as legitimate voices. The force in Woodson’s body of work centers on its ability to transcend age groups. During the author talk, she reflected that readers of all generations—and walks of life—confess that they can relate to the experiences and observations recounted in her stories.
Woodson described how she always wanted to write and was a voracious reader as a kid. The library was her second home; a detail that was very similar to my own childhood. She also spoke about the importance of diverse narratives and the concept of “mirrors and windows.” Books are the most powerful when we can see ourselves in the characters and gain insight into worlds other than our own. By grabbing readers at a young age, children’s books are wonderful tools to share our similarities and differences.
As a tip for writers, Woodson recommended being as specific as possible when crafting scenes. We shouldn’t shy away from delving deeper into setting, detail, voice and emotion. Through this specificity, scenes become more honest, authentic and, hence, more universal. Druker asked Woodson to read out loud a few passages from her memoir, New York Times bestseller Brown Girl Dreaming (2014). Written in a lyrical, verse-style, it’s a journey through Woodson’s childhood alongside the people and places that have shaped her identity. Tight and concise, the requested passages encapsulated so much depth and feeling, transporting us in the audience to the landscape of Woodson’s history.
It would have been enough for Woodson to be a brilliant, immensely gifted, prolific novelist who has been honored with the National Book Award; Coretta Scott King Award; the NAACP Image Award; and now, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, but she was also humble, conveying warmth, humor and empathy. Did I forget to mention that she did a reading at the Obama White House? I think everyone in the room would have liked to exchange thoughts with Woodson about a host of topics—both related and unrelated to her books. I’m so proud my adopted country has recognized the beauty and breadth of Woodson’s writing. I got the sense we all understood the urgency for inclusiveness in these divided times.
Woodson graciously signed books after the ALMA interview. When I got home, I saw that she had written in mine: “Jennifer, my fellow brown girl dreaming!”