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The Books of Jacqueline Woodson

Explore teaching activities to be used with the books of Jacqueline Woodson.
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AN INTERVIEW WITH JACQUELINE WOODSON

Why do you write for young adults?

I think it's an important age. My young adult years had the biggest impact on me of any period in my life, and I remember so much about them. When I need to access the physical memories and/or emotional memories of that period in my life, it isn't such a struggle. And kids are great.

The issue of identity is central to the three books under discussion, yet each seems to approach this topic differently. Was this a deliberate choice on your part? What does each of these stories say about the teen characters and their struggles to define themselves?

Identity has always been an important and very relevant issue for me. For a lot of reasons, I've been "assigned" many identities. From a very young age, I was being told what I was—black, female, slow, fast, a tomboy, stubborn—the list goes on and on. And this happens with many children as they are trying to become. So that by the time we're young adults, no wonder we're a mess! There are so many ways we come to being who we are, so many ways in which we search for our true selves, so many varying circumstances around that search. No two people are alike, but every young person is looking for definition. My journey as a writer has been to explore the many ways one gets to be who they are or who they are becoming.

What drew you to the telling of the interracial love story in If You Come Softly? What aspects of this relationship did you want to illuminate for young readers?

A story comes to me from so many angles. When I first started writing If You Come Softly, I thought I was writing a modern Romeo and Juliet. I kept asking myself "What would be different if Romeo and Juliet was being written today?" But when I was younger, I was also deeply affected by the death of Edmund Perry—an African-American boy who was attending prep school and, while home on break, was shot by cops. After the death of Perry, I took notice every time a young black man was shot by cops—which is too often—and later found innocent. I also knew as I was writing this book that I wanted to say "Love who you want. Life is too short to do otherwise." All of this and I'm sure a lot more was there at my desk with me as I sat down each day to work on this book.

Is there something special about sibling relationships that you drew on to write Miracle's Boys?

Mostly I tried to create boys who were real. I used a bit from my own childhood and I guess I drew on the love I feel for my two brothers—one who is older and one who is younger. My older brother is kind of like Ty'ree and my younger one is a bit like both Charlie and Lafayette. I think there is a lot of me in Charlie, too.

What do you do differently, if anything, when you tell a story from a male perspective?

When I'm writing from a male perspective, I try to imagine myself as a boy and I really try to remember as much as I can about the guys I knew and know. It's very different than creating girl characters, but I love the challenge of it.

Where did you get the idea for Hush?

Some years ago I read an article in the New York Times Magazine that started the seed for Hush. I did a good bit of research and just thought about the story for a long time before I started writing it. I kept asking, "Who would I be if this happened to me? What would I have left?" It was devastating to think about, but at the same time, it really made me grateful for all that I do have—all the people in my life who have been with me since childhood, my family, my pets, everything.

Although these are very different stories, they each reflect what can happen to African-Americans when they are impacted by the criminal justice system. What do you want your readers to understand about this?

I don't really know what I want readers to understand. I know what it helps me to understand—that the criminal justice system has historically not worked for African-Americans, that the percentage of people of color as compared to whites in jail, killed by cops, racially profiled and constantly singled out is unbalanced. I want the system to be different, and the only way that it can change is if the way our society looks at race changes. And the only way that can happen is if people really start paying attention and making a decision to create change.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

If You Come Softly

  1. Describe Ellie's relationship with her mother and her father. How have her relationships been influenced by things that happened in the past? How is Ellie's life different from her older siblings'?
  2. Ellie expected Anne to understand about Miah. Describe their relationship when they were younger. Why did Anne react the way she did? What change did this cause between Ellie and Anne?
  3. Why does Ellie fear her parents' reactions to Miah?
  4. How do Miah's famous parents impact his life? How does he handle the reactions of his peers when they learn about his father? What happens when Ellie learns about them? Should he have told her earlier? Why or why not?
  5. Miah is close to both of his parents. How have they tried to build his self-image? What characteristics does he get from each of them? How is he affected by their separation?
  6. How do teachers and students attempt to stereotype Miah? How does he handle these incidents?
  7. Ellie doesn't have any close girlfriends from her old school or at Percy Academy. What do you think a girlfriend would have said about her relationship with Miah? What advice would you have given Ellie, and why?
  8. Miah has a friend, Carlton, who is mixed racially but considers himself African-American. What issues do biracial and mixed racial people face?
  9. If You Come Softly deals with a classic theme of the challenge of loving someone outside of your own group. Name some other well-known couples who faced similar challenges.
  10. The story begins and ends nearly three years after Miah's death. What has happened in Ellie's life? How do you think she handled the tragedy?
Miracle's Boys
  1. Each of the three brothers is haunted by a past incident involving their parents. Describe each incident and tell how it continues to bother each of the boys. How do they each deal with what Ty'ree calls "a monkey on their back"?
  2. Why does Charlie act so hostile to his brothers when he returns from Rahway Home for Boys?
  3. Lafayette has a difficult time coping after his mother's death. How does the psychologist help?
  4. Although the boys are on their own after Milagro's death, they receive some help from their Aunt Cecile. What kind of help does she provide?
  5. Describe Charlie's friend Aaron. How does he interact with Lafayette? Why? What kind of choices is he making about his life?
  6. People in the neighborhood refer to Ty'ree as "St. Ty'ree." Why has he earned that nickname?
  7. Lafayette has strong memories of his mother as a reader, particularly reading Toni Morrison. How does the quote "The function of freedom is to free someone else" relate to Ty'ree, Charlie, and Lafayette?
  8. Issues about money and poverty confront the family constantly. How did Milagro show her values concerning money? How do the boys accept or reject her feelings?
  9. What do you think will happen to Miracle's boys?
Hush
  1. Describe Evie's life in Denver before her father witnessed the shooting. Why is her real name so important to her?
  2. How did her mother become involved with religion? Why?
  3. Why does her grandmother refuse to leave Denver?
  4. Why is it so important for Evie's father to testify in this case? What other actions could he have taken?
  5. Contrast Evie's home in Denver with her family's new home.
  6. Each member of the family leaves something important behind when they are forced to leave Denver. Describe what each leaves behind and why it matters.
  7. Why does Evie decide to join the track team, and why does she keep it a secret?
  8. Anna decides to try to gain admittance to a college that will accept her before she graduates. Why is this important to her? What impact will this have on her family? On Evie?
  9. How are Evie and her father able to reach each other again? What understanding does Evie gain when she is able to finally speak openly with her father again?

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