Acclaimed children’s book author Jacqueline Woodson will speak this week at Spalding University. Woodson is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for children and young adults, which have been honored by the Newbery, Caldecott and Coretta Scott King awards.
As the Diane M. Raab Distinguished Writer in Residence, Woodson headlines Spalding’s Festival of Contemporary Writing, which began Saturday and runs through this weekend. Woodson’s book “Hush” is the university’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing book in common for the spring semester. She will read from and discuss “Hush” and her other works during her talk Thursday in Spalding’s auditorium.
“Hush” is the story of two girls who enter the witness protection program with their family. After their policeman father testifies against fellow cops charged with the murder of an unarmed black teenager, the family must move on with new names and a secret past.
Woodson says “Hush” is a book about identity politics and what happens to her characters when their histories and names change.
“One of the main themes running through that book is when someone takes your name away, who do you become? How do we identify ourselves, how do other people identify us, and what does that all mean?” she says.
Critics praise Woodson for writing thoughtfully about sensitive topics such as race, poverty, teen sexuality and family tragedies. In “Peace Locomotion,” a brother and sister are sent to separate foster care homes following the death of their parents. “The Dear One” tackles teen pregnancy and class differences, and the title character of “Lena” runs away from her troubled home with her younger sister. Her young protagonists don’t always get their happy ending, but Woodson says every book has to contain some element of hope.
“That’s what I’m coming to the text for, first and foremost, and by extension I know that’s what my reader is going to come to it for,” she says. “Who wants a hopeless story? I think that’s true in our own lives and in our literature.”
Woodson says her writing tends to be political and concerned with a greater good, and that childhood is the landscape she has the most access to for exploring the themes and stories that catch her imagination. Writing effective stories featuring teens and kids takes a certain amount of willingness to travel back in time to what Woodson calls an often painful and transitory period.
“It’s such an important time in our existence as human beings, when we’re figuring out who we are, when we are naming ourselves, when we are individuating from family, when we are choosing who we’re trying to become,” Woodson adds. “It feels powerful to go back and be in that world and do all that stuff I didn’t do the first time around, and really shape my characters into strong young women or strong young men.”
Like many writers, Woodson credits the books she read as a child as providing entry into other worlds, cultures and ways of being, a feeling she continues to chase with each new writing project.
“When I opened a book I could be out on a prairie or I could be in Texas or I could be in California, places I had never seen or could only imagine,” she says. “When I start writing a book it allows me to do the same thing, to go into those worlds and explore them and figure them out, and come out of them knowing just a little bit more about myself.”