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Author Chat with Jacqueline Woodson

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Transcript from Live Chat
July 23rd, 2003

NYPL: Welcome to today's author chat on-line with special guest author, Jacqueline Woodson. Ms. Woodson is the winner of a Coretta Scott King Award for "Miracle's Boys," the story of Tyree's attempts to keep his two brothers together as a family after their mother's death. Her books, "From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun" and "I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This," were selected as Coretta Scott King Award Honor Books. Ms. Woodson's characters search for their true identity when life places them in difficult situations. It's a pleasure to have you as our guest today.

Jacqueline Woodson: Thanks. Good to be here.

Stephanie: What was your favorite book as a kid?

Jacqueline Woodson: I had a lot of them. "The Little Match Girl," The Selfish Giant," "Zeely," and "Snowy Day." The list goes on and on.

Jazzmin: Is it true that "Miracle's Boys" will be a TV show this fall? Will you be one of the stars?

Jacqueline Woodson: Hah! No way will I be one of the stars. Yes, it will be a series, but not until fall of 2004. They're just starting to shoot it. I went to the filming of the pilot episode and it was really fun.

Cleo: How did you get your first book published, and what was it?

Jacqueline Woodson: I got it published by finishing it. That was the biggest hurdle. The book is called "Last Summer with Maizon."

Jenna: What inspired you to become a writer?

Jacqueline Woodson: I've always loved writing. When I was younger, I had a teacher who said "When you choose a career, make sure it's something you love doing, because you'll be doing it for the rest of your life!" Writing was what I loved most.

Jazzmin: When will you write another love story? "If You Come Softly" is one of my favorites. I cried.

Jacqueline Woodson: I think I'm writing one now, but I'm not sure. I never know what the book is going to be until it's almost finished. But there is a lot of love in the story I'm writing now.

Jazzmin: I loved "Hush!" Did you ever live in Colorado? Why did you write a book about a cop and his daughters?

Jacqueline Woodson: I have never lived in Colorado, but I have close friends from there. I wanted to write about what it would be like to feel like you 'completely' lost a sense of who you were. I didn't know I'd end up writing about a cop and his daughters. It just kind of happened.

Cow Girl: To write the book, "Hush," did you have to do research about the Witness Protection Program?

Jacqueline Woodson: I have a friend who is a journalist. She writes for the New York Times. She did most of the research for me--thank goodness. I hate doing research.

Sigma: What was the earliest person or event in your life that influenced you to be a writer?

Jacqueline Woodson: Some of my earlier memories--reading Zeely and realizing Virginia Hamilton was black, winning a poetry contest in fifth grade, writing poems as a little kid, and stuff like that.

Strappy: Women seem to be the strong characters in your books. Was that true in your life?

Jacqueline Woodson: It still is.

Doodle: Do you have a favorite character of all your books? Who and why?

Jacqueline Woodson: I like them all for different reasons. It's like having a bunch of kids; although, I wouldn't really know since I only have one. But each one is special for their own reasons, and I don't think I could choose among them.

Jenna: What is the most embarrassing thing you have ever done?

Jacqueline Woodson: Why would I ever put it in print?

KCPL: How did you get your ideas for "Miracle's Boys," which is a beautiful book?

Jacqueline Woodson: Thanks. I had the voice of Lafayette in my head. I knew I wanted to write about family. I knew I wanted to try to write a book that had only guys in it. "Miracle's Boys" is what came out of all of that.

St. George: I am published on poetry.com under John Mahoney. What are some tips for inspiring authors wanting to be published?

Jacqueline Woodson: Finish the story, poem, novel you're working on. Read a LOT in the genre you're writing, in order to see what's out there. And send your stuff out to magazines, journals, and whoever is publishing the kind of stuff you're writing. If you're sixteen or over, visit the website www.nationalbook.org to learn about a writing camp that is absolutely FREE for gifted young writers.

Linz: Do you ever ask teenagers for their opinions on a book you are writing before it's published?

Jacqueline Woodson: Yep. I have a few young people who read most of the stuff I write and give me feedback

Catherine NYC: Can you pick ten words to describe yourself?

Jacqueline Woodson: No. Why would I want to? People are so much more complicated than that. It would be reductive to do so.

SWJ: How many books have you written?

Jacqueline Woodson: Lots. I think about twenty or so.

Disco Babe: What was it like to win awards for your books?

Jacqueline Woodson: It's surprising, for lack of a better word. Every single time I win an award, I'm completely shocked. I write because I love writing, and when someone else likes it, it always catches me just a little off guard. But it's a good off-guardness, not a bad one.

Trunks: When you first wrote about Maizon, did you think there would other books about her? What changed your mind?

Jacqueline Woodson: I thought "Last Summer with Maizon" would be the only one. Then I got lots of letters from readers asking about Maizon's experiences at Blue Hill. Then I decided to write a sequel. Then my editor suggested I make it a trilogy. The end. No more Maizon books to come I don't think. Although, I have been thinking lots about Lil Jay lately.

GBS: Have you ever known how a whole book would work out when you started to write it?

Jacqueline Woodson: Never.

Alibaba: Families are important in your books. Is that a message you want to bring to kids, or just the way the books turn out?

Jacqueline Woodson: It's just the way the books turn out. If that's the message readers take away, that's cool. I never write to teach, only to learn. I learn a lot from my books.

Justin: Melanin Sun really had a lot to deal with all at the same time--his Mom's coming out and her white lover. Did you ever know someone like Melanin?

Jacqueline Woodson: Lots of people. And people who weren't dealing with the specific issues Mel were dealing with but were struggling just the same.

Helena: How long does it take to write a book like "Hush?"

Jacqueline Woodson: "Hush" took about two years to write. I'm usually working on more than one book at a time, though. When I get bored with one, I go to another, and then come back again later.

KCPL: In your book "I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This," was Lena Bright someone special to you?

Jacqueline Woodson: Yeah. I liked that character a lot. But Marie was just as special for different reasons.

Urban: How did you 'know' what each person in that family ("Hush") would feel like?

Jacqueline Woodson: I didn't until I started writing about them. You really have to go inside a lot of heads as a writer. You really have to think about how people feel.

Teak: Did you have trouble getting "I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This" published, or did you have to write it in a certain way because Lena is being molested by her father?

Jacqueline Woodson: Nope and nope. I told the story, and I tried to tell it in a way that I would want to read it.

Glitter Bug: Do you ever work on several books at once?

Jacqueline Woodson: Yep. See above.

KCPL: Do you belong to a writer's group? Would we recognize other members in your group?

Jacqueline Woodson: Yep. And maybe. But they might not want people to know they're in a writers group, so I wouldn't put their names down without asking. Writing groups are great.

Jenna: Do you ever write books under another name?

Jacqueline Woodson: Nope.

Starr: What made you decide to write "Lena" after "I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This." Did kids ask to hear more about Lena's story?

Jacqueline Woodson: Exactly! I got so many letters that I said, "Okay, let me tell this side of the story."

Kate: Where were you born?

Jacqueline Woodson: Columbus, Ohio.

Jazzmin: Did you grow up in New York City? The best town in the world!

Jacqueline Woodson: Yep, and I still live here. It is the absolute best place to me. I live in Brooklyn in a neighborhood called Park Slope.

New Dorp: What do you want kids to get from your books?

Jacqueline Woodson: Whatever they want to get.

Catherine NYC: What's your favorite book you've read this year?

Jacqueline Woodson: I don't know. My little girl keeps me from reading the way I would like to. But I read a book called "When The Emperor Was Divine," by a woman named Julie Otsuka, that I really loved.

KCPL: A lot of great illustrators have worked on your books. Do you have a favorite?

Jacqueline Woodson: I really love EB Lewis and James Ransome.

Kipling: What time of the day do you like best to write?

Jacqueline Woodson: Mornings.

Tennie: What is your next book going to be about?

Jacqueline Woodson: I don't like to talk about it until it's done.

Bonnie: Do you do school and library visits?

Jacqueline Woodson: Yep. They're fun. I don't do as many as I used to do, but I like meeting my readers and hearing their thoughts about things.

Jenna: Do you have any recommendations for good books for teens?

Jacqueline Woodson: I would need to know what kind of teen we were talking about. But librarians are awesome that way. You tell them a book the child likes and they give you ten more that the reader would also like

Lila: Do you have a website where teenagers can write to you?

Jacqueline Woodson: www.jacquelinewoodson.com

Lilly D.: Where did you go to school?

Jacqueline Woodson: In New York, mostly.

Emm: How does it feel to be a famous writer?

Jacqueline Woodson: I truly feel like a writer. I don't feel famous, though. I mean, if you saw me on the street, would you know me?

Filli: Do you like animals? Do you have a pet?

Jacqueline Woodson: I love animals! I have a dog named Maus. There's a picture of her on my website. If I could, I would have a house full of animals, but I have friends who are allergic, so I just have Maus. One day, though, I would love to just take in strays and find homes for them.

Jazzmin: So you like basketball. Do you have a favorite team, players, and why?

Jacqueline Woodson: I love basketball. You know I have to be a Knicks and a Liberty fan. Witherspoon and Weatherspoon. Also, Jason Kidd of the Nets, and, of course, Jordan and Spreewell. Anyone who has a good ball-head on his/her shoulders is a favorite of mine.

Greg P.: Would you like your daughter to grow up to be a writer?

Jacqueline Woodson: If she wants to be a writer, I'd be fine with that. But I wouldn't want to be around on days when she had to revise if she's anything like me. Mostly, I want her to be happy, and if writing does that for her, then writing it is.

KCPL: Did you use the library as a kid?

Jacqueline Woodson: Yep. I was always at the one right around the corner from my house. It was like a second home to me. But the librarian was kind of mean. So for a long time, I was a bit scared of librarians.

Rachel: Have you done much traveling? If so, where have you been?

Jacqueline Woodson: I've been to all fifty states, and some of them more than once. I've been to Europe and Mexico. I like Paris, but London is too gray for me.

Belinda P.: How did you start writing?

Jacqueline Woodson: My sister taught me how to write my name, Jacqueline Amanda Woodson, when I was about three. I fell in love with letters, and then with the fact that, if you strung letters together, you had words, and words made sentences. It all seemed so mystical, and then it was powerful. The rest is history.

Jazzmin: Was Maus named after Art Spiegelman's book "Maus?" Do you like graphic novels? Are you planning to write a graphic novel? That would be so hip!

Jacqueline Woodson: Yep. I was reading Spiegelman when I found her. I love the "Maus" books! I would love to be able to write a graphic novel, but I can't draw to save my life.

Ali Mohsin: Have you read the book about Benjamin Franklin?

Jacqueline Woodson: Which one?

KCPL: Did you write "The Other Side" about your own experience in South Carolina?

Jacqueline Woodson: No. I wrote it about my experiences here in Brooklyn. The story was written thinking about the way segregation exists in the present day. But once I saw Lewis' beautiful illustrations, I didn't want to change them, so it became a story about the past.

Mexicano: How many books do you read in a week?

Jacqueline Woodson: None this week. I don't read fast, and I don't encourage it. It should be about how much you learn about life and writing and people, and not how fast or how many books you can read.

Sleepy Head: What advice can you give a teenager who wants to be a writer?

Jacqueline Woodson: Write. Come to the writing camp I teach at. It is absolutely free if you get accepted. Again, the web address is www.nationalbook.org for info about the camp. Don't write because you want to be famous or want to make a lot of money. Write because you love writing.

Freesia: Is there another genre that you'd like to try?

Jacqueline Woodson: I think I've written in all the ones I love.

Palu: Why do you prefer writing for children/teenagers instead of adults?

Jacqueline Woodson: I don't. I write for all people, and I have published books across the generations.

Rhiaanon: Do you have pictures in your mind of what your characters look like before you begin, or do you create them as you write the story?

Jacqueline Woodson: The characters become clearer as I write. But sometimes I do have a vague idea.

Twila: Do you write longhand or use a computer?

Jacqueline Woodson: Both.

L. Card: How have public libraries influenced you, both as a child and as an adult?

Jacqueline Woodson: Two words--free books! That's been the biggest influence, which is this access to literature that is amazing.

Mace: Were you a good student in school? What were your favorite subjects?

Jacqueline Woodson: I was okay. I did really well in Language Arts, English, and Spanish. Sometimes, I did well in Social Studies. I repeated Algebra 1 three times before they gave up and sent me to the next level. Sometimes I tried to get over by writing a poem or a story instead of doing my real work. It worked once in a while, but not often.

Bonnie: Do you get to choose your own illustrator?

Jacqueline Woodson: Yep.

Jeska: Did you go to college? What did you study?

Jacqueline Woodson: I did go to college. I majored in English, and I minored in British Literature.

Jazzmin: Your website is cool! So you said pizza is your favorite food. What do you like on it?

Jacqueline Woodson: I like it plain. Did you just go visit it? That's funny. Sometimes I'll get spinach and garlic if I absolutely feel like I should be eating veggies. But I could eat pizza seven days a week and not get tired of it.

Jay Jay: How many languages have your books been translated in?

Jacqueline Woodson: Lots. Japanese. Chinese. French. Spanish. Italian. German. Tagalog. Danish. I'm looking at my shelves now. The list goes on and on.

Syndy: Do you get much fan mail, and does it come from all around the country?

Jacqueline Woodson: Yep. I get a lot from Japan these days, and a lot from the west coast. Sometimes it takes me a while to answer it, but I really try to.

Lisly: Have any of your books been performed as plays? If yes, which ones, and if no, would you consider it?

Jacqueline Woodson: "The Other Side" has been done as a play, and some others that I'm not remembering now. I wouldn't consider writing them as plays, because I can't write plays. I haven't seen any of the performances.

Chrome: What do you do when you get writer's block?

Jacqueline Woodson: There's no such thing as writer's block. What people call 'writer's block' is the body saying, "Hey, person! This is not what you want to be writing right now, so I'm not gonna let you write it. Stop. Think. What do you really want to write here?"

lriac: What is your favorite color?

Jacqueline Woodson: Blue. Sometimes green, but mostly blue

Meed: You said on your website that you don't like meat. Are you a vegetarian? If so, why?

Jacqueline Woodson: Would you want someone eating you? Yes, I don't do the meat thing. It grosses me out, and I love animals. I eat fish sometimes, but even that makes me feel a little guilty.

Jazzmin: What's your favorite summer thing to do in NYC?

Jacqueline Woodson: Go to the country! Usually, I go upstate. But if I'm stuck in the city, I like to bike or go to the park. Prospect Park is right up the street, and they have musicians there all the time. I like doing that.

Kelli: If you could go back and change something in your life, would you, and what would it be?

Jacqueline Woodson: I can't think of anything I'd change. Because if you change one thing, doesn't that change the rest of your life? And I like the life I have, so whatever happened in the past happened so that I could get to this place, right?

Kate: Has your family always been supportive of your writing?

Jacqueline Woodson: They were nervous at first, but they're proud now.

Jazzmin: So why did you build a website? Not every author has a web site. Do you get lots of letters from kids like us?

Jacqueline Woodson: Hah! That's why I did it. I get so many letters and that way kids like you can see what I look like, think, do, etc. Also, the sad thing is, a lot of kids didn't know I was Black. And I really, really wanted people to know that.

KCPL: Do you have any special teachers that influenced in your life?

Jacqueline Woodson: The one who said, "Choose a career you love," and some others.

Liza: Your daughter has a cool name. Where did you come up with it?

Jacqueline Woodson: Her godmom is the singer Toshi Reagon. She was named after her. If you don't know Toshi Reagon's music, you're missing out. And Toshi Reagon was named for her godmom, who is Pete Seeger's wife, Toshi Seeger. So my little Toshi comes from a line of Toshis.

KCPL: Do you have a great editor that you would like to name?

Jacqueline Woodson: My editor is awesome. I thank her in all of my books.

Fancy: How many languages do you speak?

Jacqueline Woodson: Spanish, English, and American Sign Language.

Holly: Is there a destination in the world you want to visit but haven't got to yet, and what makes that place a 'must' for you?

Jacqueline Woodson: I'd like to see different parts of Africa, just to see it and to meet people there. I'd like to go all over Asia.

NYPL: Thanks for a great chat! We are almost out of time. Do you have any parting words for us?

Jacqueline Woodson: Just thanks to everyone who took time out from his or her lives to chat with me. It was fun.

NYPL: I wish we could go longer, but I want to thank you for being with us and for answering so many questions about your writing and the influences in your life that led you to be a writer. I know your readers have appreciated this visit with you and will be looking for more of your books as fast as you write them. Again, thank you.

A Production of LiveWorld. Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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