Jacqueline Woodson, THE YEAR WE LEARNED TO FLY

Jacqueline Woodson, THE YEAR WE LEARNED TO FLY

National Book Award-winning and New York Times-bestselling author Jacqueline Woodson joins Zibby to talk about her latest picture book, The Year We Learned to Fly. Although the book is a retelling of an African American folk tale that captures what it means to escape through your imagination rather than through your body, Jacqueline shares how she began writing it before the pandemic began and the story has taken on so much more meaning as a result of Covid. Jacqueline also tells Zibby about when she knew she wanted to be a writer, what it has been like to meet a number of her earliest readers as adults, and which books she currently loves.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jacqueline. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Year We Learned to Fly and so much else. Thank you so much.

Jacqueline Woodson: Thanks, Zibby. I’m glad to be here.

Zibby: This is so nice. I was so excited the first time I saw you on a little Zoom for The Center for Fiction board meeting. I was like, oh, this is so nice. Now you have an even bigger square on my Zoom, so there you go. We’re trading up in the world.

Jacqueline: Then we’ll be back on that little square again. Hopefully, at some point, in real life we’ll have a board meeting.

Zibby: That would be nice. I actually saw you with Kwame Alexander, who had been on my podcast a couple years ago, when he brought the Kwame bus or whatever. Do you remember the bus that was parked outside?

Jacqueline: Yes. Did he bring it to you?

Zibby: No, no, he brought it to The Center for Fiction. I grabbed my kids. We went over there and watched. You were on stage. There were two other people.

Jacqueline: It wasn’t Jason. Oh, no, it was people from Kwame’s, his imprint. It was probably Lamar and someone.

Zibby: Don’t ask me the names. I would recognize their faces. Anyway, The Year We Learned to Fly, let’s talk about this book, which is absolutely beautiful, illustrated by Rafael López. Talk about the inspiration for this beautiful children’s book.

Jacqueline: Thank you for asking. It’s so weird to have it out in the world. It’s weird to have a new book out in the world and to be on this “book tour.” I’m so happy to be able to be home, to not have to leave my family and the dogs and Brooklyn and be able to go out into the “world,” but it’s surreal. It’s definitely surreal. When I first started writing The Year We Learned to Fly was before there was even a pandemic. It was this idea of writing about escape in the way that even when we’re getting punished or having time out, that we still have control over our mind and the places that we can go inside of it. I’m writing and rewriting. Then at some point, I decided I wanted to revisit Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly, which is a retelling of African American folk tales. One of the folk tales in the book is about the history of enslaved people and the idea of them flying back across the water to home, back to Africa. I thought, wow, what if I took that idea and brought it into the twentieth century and the descendants of those ancestors were a part of this narrative? That became The Year We Learned to Fly. In the course of writing it, of course, we all had to figure out how to fly. We all suddenly were in the house with our beloved and with our children and with our pets with no place we could physically go. I’m chuckling about it, but at the same time, I’m like, careful what you write about.

Zibby: That’s so funny because I was so sure when I read it that you had written it during the pandemic. I was like, oh, this is perfect. How helpful is this

Jacqueline: No, I couldn’t have dreamed this pandemic. I couldn’t have dreamed so much of this past year and a half.

Zibby: This whole notion of escaping through imagination, that’s really at the crux of storytelling and writing to begin with. What you think about and where you take your mind, yes, you can just fantasize, but then so much of that arrives on the page in some way, shape, or form. It’s like the prewriting. It’s the imaginative stuff before it lands that you’re really captivating and encouraging, which is so important, especially now. I interviewed Brendan Slocumb yesterday. I told him about you on his podcast. He wrote The Violin Conspiracy. Have you heard about him?

Jacqueline: Yes.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I feel like you two need to meet and do an event together. I just told his publicist this too, not that this is any of my business. There were so many similar themes of what you do when your circumstances are sort of working against you. How do you cope with that? One way is, it’s the power of your mind and optimism and perseverance and all of that. His was in the context of being a black, young violinist and having so much opposition.

Jacqueline: He’s brilliant too. He’s so brilliant. It’s amazing. I can’t believe he and I haven’t met yet. It’s interesting. We have two huge dogs that are half poodle, half German shepherd. You can only see one third of him. The older one, who’s four years old, has been sick. We’ve been trying to figure out what it is. I’m just like, it’s fungal. It’ll go away. My partner, who’s a physician and knows these things, was like, I think it is something different from that. I’m like, I’m going to do my magical thinking, thinking about — oh, my goodness, I’m blanking on her name, but The Year of Magical Thinking, who just passed away.

Zibby: Joan Didion.

Jacqueline: Joan Didion, and remembering her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, and the death of her husband all of that. I am such a true believer of the power of magical thinking, of the power of optimism and how it can be a force; if not changing the situation, at least getting us through it.

Zibby: Right. It’s so interesting. I feel like your whole thing is looking up, even the cover. They’re learning to fly, thinking of the sky. I feel like when I’m in really stressful situations, I do the exact opposite. I have to look down. I feel like if I look up, it makes me too anxious, all these things coming. I’m like, if I just look at what’s right on my desk or at my feet or right in front of me, then I can get through whatever this is versus escaping in some way. I don’t know.

Jacqueline: That’s so interesting. It makes absolute sense, that moment-by-moment way of getting through stuff because it is overwhelming when you look out there and see how much more work there is to do. I find when I’m writing, if I go outside — well, not so much anymore because my eyes are much better because I had eye surgery. I used to take off my glasses because I wanted the world to be blurry. I didn’t want to have any more stimuli coming toward me. I can’t really do that now.

Zibby: Interesting. My eyes are starting to get blurry. I’m trying to ignore it. My husband keeps being like, “Go to the eye doctor.” I’m like, “No, no, no.” Then I keep holding my menu over here. He’s like, “This is getting embarrassing. It’s time.” I’m holding out.

Jacqueline: The phone with the light on it for the menu, yeah.

Zibby: I was literally at a restaurant obviously straining too much that the maître d’ guy brought me over a lantern like I was eighty-five years old. I’m like, this is so embarrassing.

Jacqueline: He could’ve brought you over a large-print menu.

Zibby: Yeah, I know. It’s just so bad. Wait, so how did you get here? How did you become a number-one best-selling author, a National Book Award winner, and all the stuff, Hans Christian Andersen Award? It’s amazing what you’ve accomplished. Did you always know? When did it start? How did you do it?

Jacqueline: I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was seven. I love the physical act. I loved the scratch of the pencil on paper. It was so visceral for me, that physical act. I think of it like a visual artist in terms of, watching letters form felt like magic to me. I didn’t know it then, but I saw the power in it. I saw the power in how when you put a word on the page, that word became something. That sentence became something. It wasn’t just about me anymore. It spoke to other people who could read it or who I could read it to. At seven, I didn’t know any of this, but I felt it. It was more of a feeling. I love telling stories. I got in trouble — I talk about this a lot — through lying all the time. I would make up stories all the time. I would say I wanted to be a writer, a physical writer. I just wanted to write. I think at that age I didn’t know what that meant. I wanted to write. I wanted to physically write every day, and the storytelling, of course, those started kind of coming together as I got older. I was writing poetry and short stories and stuff. I never knew it was going to be this. I remember being around ten or eleven and being in the bathroom in the mirror with my hairbrush giving a thank you speech for the Pulitzer Prize. All I knew was that this was an award that was given to writers. It was the only one I knew. Even though we had the Newbery sticker on books in school, I didn’t make that connection that that was a writing award, but I had heard something about the Pulitzer Prize and writers. I was thanking my readers.

Zibby: By the way, I did the same thing at the same age. I didn’t even know about the Pulitzer Prize. I would get up and pretend, congratulations, you’re the youngest person who’s ever written a book. I’m like, thank you, thank you so much.

Jacqueline: That’s so funny. Oh, man, mirrors and hairbrushes, that’s a whole other story.

Zibby: Anyway, keep going.

Jacqueline: I love the connection, the fact that I wasn’t the only one doing that in my Bushwick apartment. I didn’t have a back-up plan. I really didn’t have a back-up plan. My mom and grandma wanted me to teach or be a lawyer or do hair or something that was going to earn an income. That was what they knew. We had been a family of the Great Migration. We came here from South Carolina. Part of that migration narrative is the idea of better opportunities for your children. It’s the same as the immigrant narrative. You come from a place of oppression, which was the South during the post-Jim Crow. You go to a place where there’s opportunity, which was the North, New York City. Their idea of someone making it was getting a job and having a pension or marrying someone, marrying a man — it was very heteronormative — marrying a man who would provide for you.

That wasn’t in my narrative, neither one of those things. I had no interest in this idea. I wasn’t one of those girls who dreamed a wedding. I wasn’t one of those people who thought that I would work the same job and go into an office and punch a clock and have a boss and get a paycheck and have a fixed income, which I understood because my mother always talked about being on a fixed income when we wanted something extravagant. Her salary was the salary in the house. I knew writing brought me the most joy. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I knew I’d eventually have to take odd jobs to pay stuff like rent and get out of my mom’s house. I didn’t dream this. I really didn’t dream this. I do know that I wanted to do what I loved. Writing was the thing I loved.

Zibby: What were some of the oddest jobs?

Jacqueline: Oh, my god. I worked at Häagen-Dazs on the Upper East Side, 63rd and 1st, I think it was, 60-something and 1st. Then I worked at the one on 52nd and 3rd. As a teenager, of course, I worked in fast food restaurants even though I didn’t eat fast food. I worked as a word processing secretary for a long time, mainly as a temp secretary at different banks like Manufactures, , banks that don’t exist anymore.

Zibby: I remember those.

Jacqueline: I worked with runaways and homeless kids. I worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield handling insurance forms. For those of you who have done insurance claims and haven’t gotten your money — maybe now it’s different because it’s computerized. Back in the early nineties, it was all paper forms. When I didn’t understand them, I’d just hide them somewhere. Of course, I feel terrible about it now. I’m like, I can’t read that. They were carbon copies. Sometimes the copies that we got, which were very light, were too hard to read. It was like, okay, this is getting hidden behind this typewriter or whatever. I was terrible at that job, needless to say. It was a lot of clerical work, data processing. Putting in numbers was terrible. What blew my mind and still breaks my heart is how hard people have to work for so little money. I would work eight-hour days at that time for seven dollars an hour. I’d be tired and barely able to make ends meet and having to go back the next day and no promise of anything more coming, anything more economically, anything more creatively.

For me, when I got home at night, there was a desperation to my writing. By that time, I was like, I want to get to the point where I can do this and not have to worry about whether or not I can pay the rent. One of the first rules of writing is keep a low overheard, which I was very good at. I had a very cheap rent and a housemate and ways of making it happen. Then I got a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony, which was my first — it’s not the MacDowell Colony anymore; it’s MacDowell — which was my first writing fellowship and the first time someone really saw me as a writer. I’m eternally indebted to MacDowell. That was the light that shone on me that said, yeah, you can make this happen. To go there for eight weeks and not have to worry about anything… From there, I got a fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which was a seven-month fellowship. After the fellowship, I ended up staying on for five years because my rent was really cheap. I could write full time.

Zibby: You’re like, you thought I graduated, but I didn’t. I’m still here. I’m not leaving. Pretty much.

Jacqueline: They give you a place to live for free for seven months. Then you have to find your own place. Their whole idea is that they’re trying to bring artists to Provincetown to keep that artist community going. They were happy when artists came there and are like, yeah, I get it, this is where I want to stay. There’s visual artists and writers and poets. I don’t know why people say writers and poets. We’re all writers.

Zibby: I know, right? Wow, what a story. I didn’t even know about fellowships. It was not on my radar. How did those get on your radar? Do you remember?

Jacqueline: I remember having friends who were constantly saying, you need to get an MFA. If you want to write, you have to have an MFA. I knew I didn’t want to go back to school. I knew I didn’t want to pay for anything. I didn’t want to risk debt because debt was going against my plan of low overhead. I remember getting a — I think it was in Poets & Writers. I would go to Barnes & Noble and buy Poets & Writers and look for places to submit to. I think it might have been an article on, at those times, they were called writers’ colonies, and reading it and being like, wait a minute, this is free? Wait a minute. All I have to do is apply? For MacDowell, the first time I applied, I got in. Let me backtrack. My editor at the time, Wendy Lamb, her husband, a composer, Paul, he had been a fellow there. She might have also told me about MacDowell. It was one of the few places at the time that was considering people who were writing young people’s literature. A lot of places were like, no, adults only, or whatever. They were stupid. MacDowell was open to all genres. Now most of those places are. At that time, there were people who looked down on young people’s literature as lesser than, which is bananas and sad but also speaks to the state of our country and the way people think about young people.

Zibby: Very true. I have to say, I have four kids, but my second-grade daughter has been reading your work in her class. When I showed her this book, she was like, “Oh, my gosh!” She’s so excited. She went into school today telling her teacher that I was talking to you. How does it make you feel to start from the pretend microphone to influencing what’s sure to be generations of children? That’s amazing.

Jacqueline: A little bit old. It’s so bananas. I was at a gathering for people of color in publishing. There was one woman who was an agent. There was one woman who was an editor and another woman who had just written her first book. They were so excited to meet me because they had read me as kids. I was like, wow. They were in their late twenties, early thirties. It’s interesting to watch the generation grow up. I think it’s part of why I went back to writing for adults too. I’m like, my readers are growing up. I still want to continue to have conversations with them. I love young people so much. They exhaust me. I love their energy. I love their curiosity. I never dreamed this, that I’d be having this conversation with them through literature, that I’d be having my own experiences as a young person legitimized by other young people in a whole different time and space having those same experiences or being able to engage with me about them. I feel grateful. If I had to choose one word it would be grateful. It feels very full circle. I started out as this young person wanting to write and wanting to write books because there were so many books in my classroom library that didn’t tell my story and then as a result, write books that tell so many people’s stories across gender and class and sexuality and race and all of the different things that seemingly divide us.

Zibby: I feel like any work — I was just saying this this morning — any work that unites us by our emotions, that is the fundamental core to everybody, the same feelings, the same hopes and dreams. I think people forget or they like to pretend that can’t be the case to justify their other beliefs or something, but everybody has the same stuff. It’s all the same love and attachment. When you tap into that in a book like this one or your other work or whatever, it makes everybody feel seen.

Jacqueline: It’s so true. I’m so glad you mentioned the emotional core because I do believe that’s where I start from as a writer. I think so many of the books that grab me and hold me are because the writer has gone to that place. They’re not trying to sidestep it by being quirky and cute or overly engaging or letting language get in the way of it. They start at that core and just pull me right in.

Zibby: What’s a book like that that you’ve loved or something that pulled you in? I want to be pulled in. Pull me in. Take me with you.

Jacqueline: What book have I read? I’m thinking of the adult book I’m reading. I think it’s On Paradise. It hasn’t come out yet. It’s by the same person who did This Little Life or A Little Life.

Zibby: I have that somewhere, yes.

Jacqueline: Oh, my goodness, I am so deeply moved by that. Of course, anything Jason Reynolds writes. He’s definitely an emotional core kind of guy, and Kwame, of course. I do feel like there are a lot of people who write for young people who really start at that point. I go back to someone like Jane Yolen and Owl Moon. That book was one of the books that helped me learn how to write picture books. Also, I can revisit it often and still feel that tug at my heartstrings in it. The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, I don’t know if you know that book.

Zibby: I don’t know that one.

Jacqueline: Hopefully, you’ll never have to read it to your children. It’s about a kid who loses their pet. The parents ask them to write ten good things about Barney. It’s so beautiful. It’s not trying to be sappy at all, but it allows you to have that cathartic emotional release that good literature allows you to have.

Zibby: Have you read Rex Ogle’s Free Lunch or Punching Bag? He’s amazing.

Jacqueline: I’m taking notes.

Zibby: He’s so great. It’s his own story of growing up having subsidized lunch and being embarrassed by that and the abuse that was going on. I love his work.

Jacqueline: Thank you for that. Free Lunch, and then the other one’s called Punching Bag?

Zibby: Yep. Punching Bag‘s the continuation. Free Lunch is middle school. Then Punching Bag is high school. You just fall in love with him and his abuela. That’s my middle-grade recommendation.

Jacqueline: Thank you.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Jacqueline: Right now, I’m working on a screenplay that I’m supposed to get the outline in today by, but it might not happen because I want to go for a run. I’m like, run, screenplay, run, screenplay? I have another picture book that’s coming out later this year that’s all about play that I’m excited about. I love The Year We Learned to Fly for the emotional core of it. I love the next book that’s coming out because it’s all about the games we played in the seventies and eighties when kids actually played in the street as opposed to now when they’re not doing it as much. What else am I working on? I’m looking around my desk. I have another screenplay I’m working on. I’m working on a nonfiction book for adults. I’m working on a middle-grade book for young people that I can’t talk about because then I won’t go back and work on it. That’s the thing about it. When you write, you write the things you cannot speak. Once you communicate them, it’s like, well, I’ve spoken them. I’ve gotten the reaction, so I’m good. I try not to speak it until it’s done.

Zibby: How many days a week do you run?

Jacqueline: Not enough. During the pandemic, I was really running or walking or some combination every day just because we were living up at our house in Brewster. I was right on the reservoir, so I could actually go out. I had to escape my family, so . Now since my family is mostly gone during the day, I don’t have to leave the house as much. Now I try to get about four days, four or five times a week.

Zibby: I’m impressed, very impressed.

Jacqueline: It’s hard.

Zibby: Your knees don’t hurt? I feel like I’m getting crippled.

Jacqueline: Now it does. I’m blaming it on the cold weather because I’m old. I’m much older than you. I’m like, it’s not arthritis. It’s because it’s cold out. I try to do prophylactic stuff. I try to stretch a lot and take ibuprofen before I go running to see if that helps. Yesterday, I went out to run. I was able to run about a half a mile, and I had to walk the other three and a half miles. I was so cranky. I was like, what’s going on?

Zibby: At least it’s not just me then.

Jacqueline: No, not at all.

Zibby: Back to, the emotional truth is that all of our bodies start to fall apart on the exact same timeline. Here we go. We’re on this escalator up to — I should say down. It’s like an escalator down to disintegration and aging. Anyway, whatever.

Jacqueline: Do you have that thing when you see people move and they do these dance steps and they go down? I’m like, how are they able to even do that? I don’t even think I could do that when I was twenty.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, one of my kids can move her leg. I’m like, how on earth? She’s like, “Try it.” I can barely sit down these days. I can’t even stand up. Give me a minute as I haul myself up on the kitchen counter.

Jacqueline: But you play tennis, right?

Zibby: I do. Oh, my gosh, thanks for saying that. Yes, I do play tennis, but not enough, particularly not in the winter. What am I going to do? I’m not a —

Jacqueline: — A bubble person?

Zibby: I’m not a bubble person. Actually, I shouldn’t say that. I used to be. These days, I’ve been doing a workout app if I can. I did one this morning. I’m so out of shape. I should stop talking about this. I did my first podcast today with this author, Nichole Perkins. I was so sweaty from unanticipated sweat from what should have been an easy workout that I had to do the podcast on my knees because I didn’t want to sit on my chair. Pathetic. So pathetic.

Jacqueline: What did Nichole Perkins write? That name is familiar.

Zibby: She wrote Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be.

Jacqueline: That’s a great title.

Zibby: It’s good. It’s a collection of essays. Not to keep promoting other — you can write that down too. A lot of sexual undertones but really interesting. Talks about pop culture and how she didn’t see herself in pop culture the way you were talking about in literature. The Breakfast Club and all these movies, John Hughes, where was — anyway, off topic. Last question, and I’ll stop chitchatting.

Jacqueline: This is fun.

Zibby: What’s your advice for aspiring authors?

Jacqueline: I would say read lots of picture books. One great thing about a picture book is it’s a very short novel. It gives you narrative arc. It gives you character arc and metamorphosis. It shows you how to get into a book quickly at the beginning. It shows you how to get out of a story in the same way you can learn that from a book that’s three hundred pages, but it’s going to take you a lot longer. You’re going to have a lot more text to study. I always encourage young writers of all ages to read lots of picture books, well-written picture books. They don’t need to rhyme. Look for the ones that have a story. Write every day if you can. Even if it’s writing down an idea or writing a poem or writing a memory, just write something because writing is a muscle. If you don’t use, then it atrophies. If you use it, it gets stronger. That’s where I would begin to give advice. If I was still teaching, it would be a lot more and a lot longer. We’d talk about the hero’s journey and the importance of reading poetry. I will say it’s very important to read poetry. If you don’t have poetry at home, Poetry Society of America, Poetry Foundation. You can go to various sites and find really good poems. I read this beautiful poem by Sharon Olds today. It was about motherhood. A lot of her stuff is very emotional in this way. I just thought, okay, my day is done with a good poem.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, wait, I want you to send me the thing.

Jacqueline: I will. The poem?

Zibby: Yeah, send me the poem. I’m excited to read that. Amazing. Actually, I just did this roundup of the best poetry books that have come out recently for Katie Couric Media.

Jacqueline: Wow, where can we find the list? I love reading poetry.

Zibby: I can send you the link, but I wrote it for Katie Couric Media. I do these roundups on her website every week, every other week. I’m always looking for good poetry books too. Anyway, thank you so much. Go for your run. Don’t let me hold you back. I hope you feel good doing it and have better luck standing up tonight than I do.

Jacqueline: Thank you. It was so fun talking to you.

Zibby: You too. Have a great day.

Jacqueline: Take care. You too, Zibby.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Jacqueline: Bye.

Jacqueline Woodson, THE YEAR WE LEARNED TO FLY

THE YEAR WE LEARNED TO FLY by Jacqueline Woodson

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