The Choice to Make a Difference: A Ripple Effect

by Ann Parker, Pima Community College, Tucson, Arizona

This is the second blog in a series sharing a presentation by Jacqueline Woodson, Jerry Pinkney, and Vaunda M. Nelson entitled “The Choice to Make a Difference” at the 2013 Tucson Festival of Books. Here, Jacqueline Woodson shares her process for writing her book Each Kindness. The book tells the story of a young girl, Chloe, who ignores the new girl in school, even though Maya tries to make friends. After Maya leaves, Chloe realizes she missed an opportunity to show kindness to another person.

Jacqueline Woodson has written numerous children’s books, from picture books to young adult novels. Her books have won a great number of awards, such as the School Library Journal’s Best Book of 2012 for Each Kindness; a Newbery Honor Award for three of her books, including Show Way; the Coretta Scott King Award for Miracle’s Boys; and the Coretta Scott King Honor Award for her novel Locomotion.

Woodson: I agree with what Jerry [Pinkney] just said about how you can learn so much about history when you write it. Even though I write fiction, when I sit down to write a book I have so many questions about the world and writing helps me make sense of the world.

My book Each Kindness came out of an idea from my daughter’s acrobatics class, where she needed to have a positive sense of herself as a broad, strong girl who could pull herself up. One of the girls was mean to another student, and this insidious cruelness was surprising to me. I decided that our family would share something at the end of each day about something we had done that was kind.

I started writing down each kindness my family shared, and as I wrote them the big question became, “How do I talk about kindness to myself and understand where cruelty comes from?” because we are all cruel at some time. I thought about the girl Chloe who doesn’t want to be friends with Maya and I thought about the times as a child I was not kind. I realized I had access to a time when I was an unkind girl and when people were unkind to me, so I was able to create both characters, Chloe who is unkind and Maya who has been treated unkindly. I didn’t want Maya to be a victim or to be broken by what the girls are doing to her, because so much of my writing is about trying to figure out how to create a world I would want to live in or one that would be safe for my children, a world that did not exist when I was a child, a world filled with people of color, with literature, with all kinds of characters who walk in the world, people who were absent in the literature I read as a child in the 1970’s. I want that mirror for kids and also for myself. I want to open up the book and see myself, see my children and the friends of my children.

While I was writing the book, I didn’t really think about the race of the girls, because that is the illustrator’s decision. Generally the writer and the illustrator don’t discuss the book together. My book Show Way was an exception, because it was about my family. Usually, the illustrator tells the story through the pictures, because the illustrations are just as important as the writing, and the two make a whole. You can look at the pictures and know the story without knowing the words, and same with the writing. The two add to the book equally.

Chloe would have to look back on her behavior and see it for what it was. I didn’t know it would end as it ended because I never know how my stories will end, because the story comes from rewriting and rewriting and figuring out the character, and what the character wants, but I knew that what Chloe would want in the end would be a chance to be kind, that she would walk off that page a different person than how she walked on to it.

And as for Maya, she walked into the world and was hopeful about making friends, and when she didn’t she was hopefully going to learn her own strength. At one point she takes the jump rope and jumps around the schoolyard by herself when nobody would jump with he. She doesn’t not jump; rather, she says, “I’m going to be a strong person and jump.”

When I write, I’m not thinking about my readers but rather about myself as a young person. Madeline L’Engle [the author of A Wrinkle in Time] said when you write, write about the child you were, because the essence of childhood doesn’t change. That’s the place I go back to, remembering myself as a young person and what I wanted and bringing that to the story.

So that was my process of writing Each Kindness, figuring out how to tell a story not about cruelty but about kindness and what happens when we are kind or not kind, and that the idea that we will wake up tomorrow and have another chance to be kind to someone is not necessarily true. It’s how we behave today that is going to have an impact on our tomorrow.

And here comes the teacher, who had not been in the book for many drafts, who says, “Each kindness goes out as a ripple in the world.” I really believe that. I’m interested in this idea that writing or illustrating a book helps us figure out who we are, and that by writing we are sending out ripples into the world that might change it.

I’m always surprised to see my books out in the world, because writing is such a very private journey. You have questions that you want to figure out for yourself, and you want to change the world, but I’m not thinking of changing the huge world, just my world. But my books do go out into the world.

Vaunda Nelson: I liked that Each Kindness didn’t tie it up in a nice little bow, because the world isn’t like that, but the characters are changed in their hearts, as is the reader.

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