Why Jacqueline Woodson’s National Book Award win means so much

Last night, at the National Book Awards, Jacqueline Woodson SO deservedly won the young people’s literature award. Woodson took home the prize for her beautiful Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir written in verse and a story split between New York City and South Carolina about growing up African-American in the 1960s and ’70s. The book reflects on the way that a child learns how to navigate society, figuring out how to make a place for themselves within the world around them.

Woodson was already a three-time finalist for the award, and we couldn’t be happier that she finally got the incredibly coveted and prestigious prize. She’s published 20 books already, and racked up three Newbery Honor Medals. And though she writes for young adults readers, the topics and issues that Goodson deals with aren’t silly kid stuff: race, alcoholism, religion, and grappling with sexual identity are all themes that she addresses honestly and gracefully. It should also be said that those are all themes that YA readers need more honest and relatable writers to approach.

“I love how much love there is in the world of young adult and children’s literature,” Woodson told the audience after accepting her award. She also emphasized how critical diversity in literature is. “It’s so important that we talk to old people and get their stories before they become ancestors . . . The world wouldn’t be complete without all our stories in it.”

The need for ALL our stories to be told was unfortunately underscored by a racially-tinged joke that presenter and Lemony Snicket author, Daniel Handler, made later in the evening about Woodson. The joke stirred up warrented outrage in the literary community (he later apologized) and unfortunately in many headline respects overshadowed Woodson’s victory. Her writing and win are the perfect retort to Handler’s misspeak: we need stories like Woodson’s to be told. We need ALL stories. Especially for YA readers. 

Woodson, who lives with her lifelong partner and two children, takes the serious issues she addresses in her books with the responsibility they deserve. She knows that young people think about topics as heavy as those as adults do, and she makes sure to encompass those thoughts and conversations in the stories she tells.

“I do believe that books can change lives and give people this kind of language they wouldn’t have had otherwise,” she told NPR. “I think it’s so important that, if I’m writing about the real world, I stay true to it. I think that kids do compartmentalize, and they’re hopefully able to see it from a safe place of their own lives, and through that, learn something about empathy.”

“I think that’s why it’s so important for me to write for this age group, because I think they’re so open and so honest and so hungry and so full of ideas,” she continued. “And what you find out is there are a lot of similarities in my childhood and their childhood.”

We are so thankful she feels that way and has dedicated her work to young readers. We need voices like hers! We need her. Congrats!

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