AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Young-adult author Jacqueline Woodson says the first time she really understood poetry was after reading Langston Hughes in elementary school.
JACQUELINE WOODSON: Until then, I thought it was some code that older, white people used to speak to each other. I didn't know what was going on with the line breaks and the words.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Jacqueline Woodson has made a career out of breaking down that code for young readers. She's written dozens of books and won three Newberry Medals and a National Book Award. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly state that the author won three Newbery Medals. She won three Newbery Honor Medals.]
CORNISH: Her latest book is called "Brown Girl Dreaming." It's a memoir in free verse, and it was just long-listed for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Kat Chow of our Code Switch team recently spent a day with Woodson and has this profile.
KAT CHOW, BYLINE: We're standing at the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. And author Jacqueline Woodson points at a large stone wall. It's etched with more than 200,000 names of blacks who fought in the conflict.
WOODSON: I heard about it from my aunt Ada Woodson, who's a genealogist. And she just has our family history all the way back.
CHOW: Her finger stops as she comes to the name of her great-great-grandfather.
WOODSON: He was part of the Fifth Regiment United States Colored Infantry. And his name is right there, and this is my first time seeing it, so my mind is kind of blown.
CHOW: Through her new memoir "Brown Girl Dreaming," Woodson connects the history of the nation with her family's. She reads part of the poem dedicated to her great-great-grandfather. It's called "It'll Be Scary Sometimes."
(SOUNDBITE OF POETRY READING)
WOODSON: William Woodson, the only brown boy in an all-white school - you'll face this in your life someday, my mother will tell us over and over again.
CHOW: That experience of being the only one echoes throughout Woodson's life. She moved around a lot as her parents struggled to stay together and eventually separated. Woodson and her siblings lived in Ohio and South Carolina before settling in New York City. As children in the '60s and '70s, they endured segregation. And race wasn't the only way they stood out. Another was Woodson's faith, as she told from school kids at a D.C. bookstore.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WOODSON: It was a very strict religion, and you have to go door to door. Who knows the name of it?
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: Mormon.
WOODSON: Mormon - close, no.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: Jew?
WOODSON: No, not Jewish. I don't think you have to - oh, well, you know, no, you don't go door to door.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: Jehovah's Witness?
WOODSON: Say it again.
GIRL #1: Jehovah's Witness.
WOODSON: Jehovah's Witness - yup. I grew up a Jehovah's Witness.
CHOW: Woodson reads a poem about standing outside her first grade classroom while other students pledged allegiance to the flag.
(SOUNDBITE OF POETRY READING)
WOODSON: Every morning, I walk out with Gina and Alina, the two other witnesses in my class. Sometimes Gina says, maybe we should pray for the kids inside who don't know that God said, no other idols before me - that our God is a jealous God.
CHOW: Woodson's books confront issues like faith, grace, sexual identity, alcoholism and even sexual abuse. They aren't what kids and teens usually see on shelves. She's trying to push the boundaries of what young readers think about.
WOODSON: I do believe that books can change lives and give people this kind of language that they wouldn't have had otherwise.
CHOW: That rang true for one student at the reading.
MIA: I'm Mia Strickland.
CHOW: Mia just started the eighth grade. She and her mom and a school librarian came all the way across town to hear Woodson talk. Mia even got to read her favorite poem from the book with the author.
(SOUNDITE OF POETRY READING)
MIA: I believe in the city and the south, the past and the present.
WOODSON: I believe in black people and white people coming together.
MIA: I believe in the nonviolence and power to the people.
WOODSON: I believe in my little brother's pale skin and my own dark brown.
MIA: I believe in my sister's brilliance and the two easy books I love to read.
CHOW: Mia is definitely part of the audience that Woodson is trying to reach. But she chafes at the idea that "Brown Girl Dreaming" is only for brown girls.
WOODSON: Teachers come up to me and say, well, I have no people of color in my class, so, you know, that's why I don't know your work.
CHOW: She says, it's crucial for young people to be introduced to writers, characters and themes that might be unfamiliar.
WOODSON: And I think that's why it's so important for me to write for this age group 'cause I think they're so open and so honest and so hungry and so full of ideas. And what you find out is there a lot of similarities in my childhood and their childhood.
CHOW: Even though Woodson is opening a window on history for young people, she says, she's learning as much from her readers as they are from her. Kat Chow, NPR News.
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