The following is a guest post by Phebe Miner, a 2017-18 intern in the Poetry and Literature Center.
When students from Brookland Middle School in northeast D.C. were invited to participate in a Q&A with the newly inaugurated National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, the first question elicited laughter from the rest of the audience. Sixth-grader Christian asked Jacqueline Woodson what she planned to do when her term was over, prompting an appreciative laugh, a round of applause, and an answer from Woodson: “I plan to rest.”
Before Woodson’s end-of-term rest, however, she has much more planned for her ambassadorship. Through her platform, “READING = HOPE x CHANGE (What’s Your Equation?),” Woodson aims “to begin a conversation our country is hungry, but oftentimes afraid, to have.” Her inaugural event, which took place in the Member’s Room of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building on January 9, was the official introduction to Woodson’s platform and her goals as ambassador.
Woodson was introduced by director of Educational Outreach at the Library of Congress Lee Ann Potter, Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden, executive director of Every Child a Reader and Children’s Book Council Carl Lennertz, and outgoing ambassador Gene Luen Yang. “Jacqueline Woodson is one of my heroes,” said Yang, whose platform Reading Without Walls encouraged young readers to choose books with characters, topics, and formats new to them. “She teaches us about the world […] Her words bring us hope; her words bring about change.”
Yet Woodson claimed, during remarks given after she was presented with the National Ambassador Medal by Dr. Hayden, that she does not write to teach, but “writes to learn.” She expressed the importance of creating diverse narratives that allow young readers to consume many kinds of stories, using Rudine Sims Bishop’s analogy of “mirrors and windows” to illustrate her own memories of growing up with very few books that she felt truly represented her. “We don’t realize our absence until we see our presence on the page,” said Woodson, mentioning that representative characters serve to “legitimize” children’s lived experiences.
Woodson, who served as the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017, also spoke about her goal to expose poetry to young readers. In conversation with Dr. Hayden, Woodson mentioned feeling “afraid” of poetry’s “secret code” as a young girl until listening to Nikki Giovanni and thinking, “I understand that; that’s not poetry.” Woodson cited poets such as Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Langston Hughes, and Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Gwendolyn Brooks as being instrumental to her development as a writer and reader of poetry, and talked about the essentiality of accessible poetry.
In her remarks, Woodson read Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “Your World,” telling guests the story of Johnson’s famous S Street Salon in northwest D.C., which served as a meeting place for writers of the Harlem Renaissance. It is clear that during her ambassadorship, Woodson hopes to reach out to young people through poetry as well as prose. As for Dr. Hayden’s question of whether she plans on continuing to tackle controversial topics despite being criticized in the past, Woodson had a simple answer: “I’m not trying to hear the haters.”
One of the most powerful moments of the ceremony came toward the end of Woodson’s remarks, just before she invited Brookland students for the Q&A. After expressing gratitude to her editors and publishers, Woodson called on the audience to join her in thanking and remembering writers and activists who influenced and inspired them. “In the African-American tradition, there is the calling of names, where we call our ancestors back into the room; where we acknowledge that because of them, we are.” As the room filled with the quiet calling of names, from Virginia Hamilton to Walter Dean Myers, Woodson’s final words seemed to echo: “Because of them, we are.”
Jacqueline Woodson will serve as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature from 2018 to 2020. A webcast of her inauguration ceremony can be viewed on YouTube, here. To learn more about the position, visit www.read.gov/cfb/ambassador. To listen to Woodson speak at the 2014 National Book Festival, click here. To learn about Woodson’s upcoming writing, visit www.jacquelinewoodson.com or follow her on Twitter @JackieWoodson.