One of the scariest, weirdest and most exciting parts of growing up is figuring out who you are. It seems strange that we aren’t born knowing this information, but instead discover it slowly, like Michelangelo painstakingly chipping away at a block of marble to find the statue waiting underneath. Writer Jacqueline Woodson understands this search for identity, saying, “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.” That’s what her short and sweet book The House You Pass On The Way is about: figuring out who you are, knowing you might be different and looking for your own place in the world anyway.
When Evangeline was 9, she changed her named to Staggerlee. She may have been able to pick a strong, tough name, but the rest of her life feels in-between, in the middle, not quite here and not quite there. She doesn’t have any friends at school, she and her siblings are the only biracial kids in town and she’s confused and scared about her sexuality. In short, Staggerlee has a lot on her mind.
When Staggerlee’s father married their mother, a white woman, their all black community was shocked. Not just because this would’ve been unusual behavior for anyone in town, but because Staggerlee’s grandparents were political activists who fought against racial injustice. They died in a bombing at a political demonstration, and they were so influential that a statue of them stands in the middle of town. Although Staggerlee never knew her grandparents, their presence is all around her. It’s in the way the townspeople look down on her mother, the way her father’s sisters won’t talk to them, the way the other kids at school think she’s snobby. Staggerlee may be able to watch video of her grandparents singing on The Ed Sullivan Show, but she’s never met a member of her extended family. Until her cousin Tyler, who calls herself Trout, comes to visit.
In Trout, Staggerlee finally finds someone else like her. Not just someone who understands what it’s like to change your identity with a name, but someone else who might, just maybe, be gay. Trout is the first person Staggerlee tells about the time she kissed a girl, and Trout understands what it’s like to feel like you have to hide yourself. “No one ever told me I had to keep quiet about it. But somehow I just knew,” Staggerlee explains. What’s always been Staggerlee’s shameful secret becomes a special, private club for just two people.
Eventually, Trout goes back home, school starts up again, and everything changes. Trout and Staggerlee aren’t as close as they used to be and summer starts to seem like a sweet, hazy dream. But even though it’s over, the summer feeling lingers on with Staggerlee. She might not be able to tell anyone else her biggest secret, but she feels like she can, at least a little bit, show them her true self. Sometimes, all it takes is one person’s acceptance. One person who knows who you really are, one person who understands, one person who actually listens when you talk. Although Staggerlee’s sexual identity is a big part of the book, the heart of the story is universal. Jacqueline Woodson’s gorgeous and poetic writing perfectly captures how important friendship can be, and how even though it can be painful, it still has the power to transform us.
-Jacqueline Woodson has a fantastic website with a lot of information about her books and writing process. For example, she tells you where she wrote each book, which is never something I thought about before but now I find super interesting.
-Even though it can sometimes seem like young adult fiction is mostly about straight, white girls, I think it’s actually one of the most diverse and accepting genres out there if you dig even a little bit beneath the surface. Jacqueline Woodson wrote about a girl who feels different and out-of-place, which is a feeling so many kids understand, even if they aren’t coming to terms with their sexuality. Woodson said in an interview: “Staggerlee knows who she is for the most part, but her friend Trout is struggling, conforming, trying to fit in somewhere. I wish I had had this book when I was a kid and trying to fit in while being a tomboy and so unfeminine.” Sometimes, just like how meeting one understanding friend helped Staggerlee start to accept herself, just reading about someone like you can make everything feel a little bit better.
-My favorite scene took place between Staggerlee and Trout by the river. In the dirt with a stick, Trout writes, “Staggerlee and Trout were here today. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t be gay.” She quickly wipes it away with her shoe in case anyone sees it, and Staggerlee says, “You think the day’ll come when you can write something like that in the dirt and it won’t faze anybody?” Let’s all hope that day happens sooner rather than later.
-If you really identify with Staggerlee’s story or want to read more about the subject, be sure to check out The Letter Q, which features a letter by Jacqueline Woodson herself.
Have you read The House You Pass on the Way or any of Jacqueline Woodson’s other books? Do you have any favorite YA books with gay or lesbian main characters? Let me know in the comments! And, as always, please let me know if there are any books you’d like to see covered in Young Adult Education. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, find me on Twitter @KerryAnn or leave a comment.
Image via Goodreads