Award Winning Author Jacqueline Woodson Shares the Power of Storytelling for Black Youth

The acclaimed author believes kids become more confident learners and active listeners when they read more slowly.

Jacqueline Wilson
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 JP Yim/Getty Images/Kindred

Jacqueline Woodson is the acclaimed author of more than 30 books for adults, children, and adolescents. She has earned many awards, including the Newbery Honor, National Book Award, Coretta Scott King Award, and the MacArthur "Genius" Grant. Despite her success, she remains attuned to the considerations of parents raising Black children.

As a mom, she knows how important it is for Black children to have access to stories about their past. "Knowing they came from something gives them a power they can hold and walk in the world with," she said in an interview with Kindred by Parents. Yet as a storyteller, many of these lessons are informed by her own childhood experiences.

Woodson remembers sitting in classrooms where the story of African Americans started with slavery. She says Black children need to know their roots started with the beginning of civilization and adds, "There is not one single person of color that can't trace their history back to something profound."

In her current role as Kennedy Center Education Artist-in-Residence, she continues to push her message about the power of diverse stories. She recently adapted her New York Times Children's Picture Books Best Seller, The Day You Begin, into a musical about how sharing our stories can strengthen our sense of individuality, connect us with others, and widen our world. The play opened at the Kennedy Center on November 19 and will run until December 18.

"Our kids have a right to learn math differently. Our kids have the right to read slowly,” she said. “Our kids have the right to learn the sciences through making cornbread. Our learning is our learning."

Woodson says the play is not meant to be the exact same as the book but to be in conversation with it. The picture book was released in 2018 and won several awards, including the American Library Association's 2020 Schneider Family Book Award. The Day You Begin was also featured in its own episode in the Netflix original show Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices. The book's companion, The Year We Learned to Fly is also a New York Times Bestseller. But despite The Day You Begin's success, there are currently national bans on the book.

Woodson says censorship is a way history gets erased and rewritten. She encourages the Black community to keep kids reading instead of chasing white standards of achievement and validates nontraditional but culturally congruent ways of learning. "Our kids have a right to learn math differently. Our kids have the right to read slowly,” she said. “Our kids have the right to learn the sciences through making cornbread. Our learning is our learning."

She notes that keeping up with vocabulary or reading faster doesn't necessarily make kids better learners. She believes kids become more confident learners and active listeners when they read more slowly.

"When kids read slowly, it allows them to see themselves and where they matter in the world and to see ideas about their futures, and they can't do this by reading 10 books in a week," Woodson says. She adds that for kids to start "deeply engaging in the text," they have to read slowly.

One of the books Woodson remembers being deeply engaged in as a reader and writer was The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton. It's a children's book about how a group escaped slavery by flying back across the ocean to Africa. She remembers being impacted by the idea of people being able to fly and notices that the theme often appears in the books she has written.

When asked for a list of her favorite children's books by other authors, she said, "My list is long and rotating." But she did offer six titles she returns to again and again.

  1. The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen
  2. Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
  3. The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander
  4. Ghost by Jason Reynolds
  5. Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
  6. The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant

When asked what advice she has for the Black community, she says, "Use the public library to keep books in young people's hands." And she also stresses the importance of adults passing on their own stories. "Tell your stories to your children, and if they don't want to hear them, write them down because once you're gone, your stories have gone with you."

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