'Feathers' Looks to Sixth Grade for Life's Lessons Life for the character Frannie in Jacqueline Woodson's new novel, Feathers, takes a bit of a turn when a new kid who looks like a white Jesus joins her predominately black sixth-grade class.
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'Feathers' Looks to Sixth Grade for Life's Lessons

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'Feathers' Looks to Sixth Grade for Life's Lessons

'Feathers' Looks to Sixth Grade for Life's Lessons

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The novel "Feathers" takes place in the days of Afros, bellbottoms and hanging out at the basketball courts. But life for Frannie takes a bit of a turn when the new kid in her mostly-black sixth grade class looks like a white Jesus.

Some students even start to wonder if the kid they jokingly call Jesus Boy is really Christ himself. "Feathers" tells the story of Jesus Boy, Frannie and her friends as they learn lessons about hope and identity.

I asked the novel's author, Jacqueline Woodson, whether her book, which takes a light touch with heavy topics, targets adults or children.

Ms. JACQUELINE WOODSON (Author, "Feathers"): When I wrote it, I was thinking about the things that I think about a lot, which is the issue of race and economic class, and racial identity and identity in general. And I think those are obviously all issues that span the generations. And for me, it came through as a book that's not that long, that kind of condenses that story and centers it on this one group of young people who are dealing with all of this stuff.

CHIDEYA: When you say this one group of young people, tell us who we're talking about?

Ms. WOODSON: We are talking about Frannie, who's the narrator of the story; the Jesus Boy who looks white to a lot of people but doesn't identify as that; and her brother Sean, who is deaf and living in a world of a lot of hearing people; and Trevor who is biracial. And, you know, because it's the '70s and that language isn't really as prominent as it is today, it doesn't yet have the language for who he is. And so in place of the language, he has a certain kind of rage.

CHIDEYA: Let's go to Sean first. I'm really interested in the whole world of the deaf. People who identify politically as deaf use a capital D. And when I lived in New York, I would always see these deaf teenagers signing on the street corners and they were all, you know, tricked out in hip-hop gear.

Your story takes place in a previous era, but still you do a lot with this whole idea of deaf and hearing and how someone who is hearing deals with a family member who's deaf. How did that come to you?

Ms. WOODSON: You know, I studied sign for a long time, and I had a lot of friends who were interpreters. I knew people who were deaf, and I wanted to humanize Sean, and humanize deafness as a community and a way of being in the world that is as amazing as other ways of being in the world. So it does come back to identity and the way we kind of see quote/unquote, "other."

CHIDEYA: Let's move on to Frannie when you're talking about identity. So she's 11 and she says, "Some days it felt like the times when I got to make handprints and flowers and stuff just slipped away from me before I even got the chance to figure out how much fun it was being a little kid."

So she is kind of pensive but exuberant at the same time. Was she patterned on you?

Ms. WOODSON: You know, I think if you ask anyone in my childhood or young adult world, they might say no, that I was much more exuberant than pensive. But looking back on it, I feel like a lot of my living was an internal life and that I thought a lot. I saw stuff in a way that made me sad sometimes, and just kind of the way I felt like as a kid. I was constantly watching the world. So I do feel like there is a lot of me in Frannie. And I think there is a lot of me as an adult in Frannie.

CHIDEYA: What about the mother? Frannie's and Sean's mom. How would you describe her?

Ms. WOODSON: I describe her as someone who is probably a tiny bit lost, and I think one of the things that I struggle with as a writer who's now a mom is how the role that mother with a capital M is supposed to play in the world and in the lives of children, that kind of all-knowing role. And the fact that there isn't an allowance for a character who is mother to be flawed.

And so I wanted to put on the page someone who was flawed, who did have moments where she basically had to lie down and step out of the scene. Step out of her role as mother and not be the caregiver but be taken care of. And that she was someone who is coping with lots of loss and trying to understand what the small gifts, the feathers that she has been given in the form of Sean and Frannie, mean for her.

CHIDEYA: The term, "Feathers", the title, comes from an Emily Dickinson poem.

(Reading) Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.

Why did that resonate with you?

Ms. WOODSON: I think mostly because the book, for me, was about hope and the many ways we try to have hope in the world, and the way each of those kids tries to have hope.

CHIDEYA: Is there a hope deficit, to put it in a clinical way, in society today?

Ms. WOODSON: That's fabulous. That's a fabulous way of putting it. I think there is that, and that it takes the form of fear. I think we live in a society that's enshrouded in its own fear. And because of that fear, it's hard for people to be hopeful because the fear gets in the way of it.

And that's the heartbreaking thing to me as a writer, as an activist, as a mom, is trying to figure out how do we get back to that place where we can find these small moments in our lives where we can say, okay, this is good. This is hopeful. This is something about us moving forward. This is something about change.

CHIDEYA: Well, Jacqueline, thank you so much.

Ms. WOODSON: Oh, thank you so much.

CHIDEYA: Award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson is the author of the novel "Feathers." To hear an excerpt from the book, log on to npr.org and go to our NEWS & NOTES page.

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