On the Outside, Looking In 

Jacqueline Woodson's multi-award-winning fiction embraces the marginalized.

When siblings are separated against their will — when they're still too young to have accumulated a massive backlog of shared memories — how can they keep from drifting apart? In Jacqueline Woodson's new novel Peace, Locomotion, Lonnie and his little sister Lili are put into foster care with separate families after their parents die. The book's text comprises Lonnie's letters to Lili as he strives to maintain their closeness and, as he puts it, "be the rememberer" until they reunite. "In a few days," he writes at one point, "I'm going to be twelve. That means two things:

"1. You're going to be nine.

"2. In nine more years, I'll be twenty-one and old enough to take care of you by myself. ... I'll still be your big brother and kind of like the boss of you. But I won't be mean."

Woodson, who will discuss her work in the Oakland Main Library's West Auditorium (125 14th St., Oakland) on Thursday, May 21, has won scores of awards — including a Newbery medal and a Caldecott medal — for her nearly two dozen volumes for young readers. These range from picture books such as Our Gracie Aunt and We Had a Picnic This Sunday Past to young-adult novels such as The Dear One, From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun, and Miracle's Boys; the latter was made into a TV miniseries. Growing up in South Carolina and then in Brooklyn, to which Woodson moved at age seven and where she still lives, "I wrote on everything and everywhere. I remember my uncle catching me writing my name in graffiti on the side of a building. It was not pretty for me when my mother found out. I wrote on paper bags and my shoes and denim binders. I chalked stories across sidewalks."

Even then, she saw herself as an outsider several times over. This feeling expanded as she grew up. Being raised a Jehovah's Witness kept her outside the mainstream; she is now a lesbian mom. Outsiderism in its varying forms is a recurring theme in her books. The Dear One is about teenage pregnancy because, when Woodson wrote it, "I was working with runaway and homeless young people — many of whom were pregnant. I wanted to write a novel that spoke to them." In I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This, a poor white girl makes friends with a rich African-American girl in a small Ohio town where "blacks and whites don't mix. ... I wanted to write a novel about friendship and in it, I wanted to show how destructive racism and classism can be," Woodson remembers. Drawing its title from lines in an Audre Lorde poem, If You Come Softly addresses teenage interracial romance; the author calls it "a modern-day Romeo and Juliet."

But the barriers to bliss have shifted since Shakespeare's time, Woodson notes: "The enemies to Jeremiah and Ellie's love are racism, police brutality, and people's general stupidity." 1:30 p.m., free. OaklandLibrary.org


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