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'Someone who looks like me': Acclaimed author inspires Key West students to write

Jacqueline Woodson has published 30 books, and won three Newbery honors and a Coretta Scott King Book Award for her young adult book <em>Miracle's Boys.</em>
Marty Umans
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Courtesy of Penguin Group USA
Jacqueline Woodson has published 30 books, and won three Newbery honors and a Coretta Scott King Book Award for her young adult book Miracle's Boys.

Celebrated author Jacqueline Woodson decided at age 7 to be a writer.

She grew up to write bestsellers, win the National Book Award for her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming and land a MacArthur Fellowship, among many other accolades.

Now, Woodson is the one inspiring young writers. She appeared at Key West High School this month to share her experiences.

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The author was in town for the 40th annual Key West Literary Seminar, where she was on the roster among other top American writers. The theme was Singing America: A Celebration of Black Literature.

Woodson spent the morning of Jan. 13 visiting students at the school, as part of the nonprofit seminar's public programming for locals. Although the seminar costs $675 per person, it has free events for the public, including a program for young writers.

Student Detra Dor, 16, found herself relating to Woodson.

"It was a really nice experience to hear another Black female," Dor said, as Woodson signed copies of her books for students. "To see someone who looks like me and talks like me, makes me feel I could do something of that caliber and become such a genius like she is."

Woodson was herself inspired as a little girl, after reading a Hans Christian Anderson story.

"I want to write," Woodson recalled thinking, in an interview after her appearance. "And be able to feel this way in my own work. At seven I couldn’t articulate it this way but it’s definitely what I felt."

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Provided by the Monroe County School District
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Monroe County School District
Author Jacqueline Woodson, seated, signs one of her books for a student at Key West High School.

In 2020 Woodson won the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, an international award for a writer of children’s books.

Woodson read some of her work onstage inside the school auditorium. She talked about her writing process and took questions from students.

"I write very short books. I write books with a lot of white space," Woodson told students, from onstage in the school auditorium. "I've always been a really slow reader. I still am a very slow reader. Probably when I was young I would've been diagnosed as dyslexic. But I wasn't diagnosed. I was just a slow reader."

Woodson's writing process reflects her childhood days, when she would read a passage over and over again so she could understand. "Eventually, it becomes part of my memory but it also becomes the book," she said.

Writing daily, even for twenty minutes helps with writer’s block, she told them.

Writing in verse

One of her characters, Lonnie Collins Motion, an 11-year-old nicknamed Locomotion, hates pigeons because she does, too, Woodson told the students. Woodson lets Lonnie tell his own story in Locomotion, a novel written in verse.

"Which is the way you write a novel," she said. "You can actually write poems, put them together, and have them have a narrative arc, have the characters have a metamorphosis, have the book have a beginning and an end, which is what every book you read has, right?"

In Locomotion, Lonnie's fifth grade class is learning to write poetry. Reading from memory, Woodson gave Key West high students an example of her work.

"People all the time talk about how much they hate pigeons because pigeons fly by and crap on their heads," Woodson read. "And then somebody always goes, 'That's good luck. That's good luck.' So you don't feel all stupid going through your pockets trying to find a tissue to wipe it off.

"And you never find a tissue because you don't be carrying tissues like some old lady. So you gotta walk up to some old lady with that pigeon crap on your head and she just goes, 'Don't worry, son. That's good luck.' Like everybody else. And it makes you hate those sky roaches because they're everywhere in the city. So if you see one, you've gotta duck or else."

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Provided by the Monroe County School District
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Monroe County School District
Author Jacqueline Woodson speaks to students at Key West High School on Jan. 13, 2023.