“Brown Girl Dreaming,” Jacqueline Woodson’s 2014 National Book Award-winning memoir in verse, included a story her mother had passed down, about Jacqueline’s great-grandfather William Woodson, the son of a free black man from Ohio, who fought and died for the Union during the Civil War. After his father’s death, William was sent to live with an aunt in a town where he was the only black kid in his school. Jacqueline transformed the story into a poem: “You’ll face this in your life someday, / my mother will tell us / over and over again. / A moment when you walk into a room and / no one there is like you.”
The poem was called “It’ll Be Scary Sometimes,” and Woodson, the author of more than two dozen books for young people and a winner of enough literary awards to fill this column, says she suspected at the time that her great-grandfather’s experience would figure in her work again, she just wasn’t sure how. Now we know. This week, “The Day You Begin,” a children’s book inspired by his story, enters the picture book best-seller list at No. 1, while her new novel, “Harbor Me,” about a diverse group of fifth and sixth graders confronting challenges at school and home, enters the middle-grade list at No. 4.
In both books, as in much of Woodson’s work, words hold tremendous power, driving characters apart and, more often, bringing them together, providing the means to bridge differences, superficial and profound. “The Day You Begin,” which opens with a variation on lines from “It’ll Be Scary Sometimes” and features lush illustrations by Rafael López, unfolds in a classroom of chattering students on the first day of school, and includes among its story lines that of a girl who, hearing her classmates’ tales of far-flung summer adventures, is initially shamed into silence at the thought that she has spent the vacation at home, on her city block, caring for a baby sister and reading.
Telling your story forges bonds. In “Harbor Me,” Haley, an 11-year-old girl, records the conversations she and five classmates have on Friday afternoons out of earshot of their perceptive teacher, who understands they need an “ARTT”— “A Room to Talk.” The talk Haley’s device captures is serious indeed: Racism, deportation, incarceration and the death of a parent are just some of the issues these students are dealing with.
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