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In Search of the Inner Teenager

Author talks about the kids at the James River Writers Conference.

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Jacqueline Woodson has a gift for capturing the thoughts, themes and feelings of young people and turning them into award-winning novels: Three preteens mourn the death of Tupac Shakur, a boy adjusts to life with a foster family after his parents die in a fire, and a black girl feels out of place at an all-white boarding school.

Woodson is one of more than 60 authors, editors and agents coming to the eighth annual James River Writers Conference the second weekend in October, where she'll discuss, among other things, the art of finding your inner teenager. 

“I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was young, really young,” says Woodson, who was born in Columbus, Ohio, and moved to her current city of Brooklyn when she was 7. By age 18, she was published in literary journals, and her first book came out two years later. “It was part luck and part finishing the novel,” she says. “I came of age when the publishing world was open and hungry for different kinds of stories by different kinds of people.”

Now 47 and the author of one adult novel and 29 young adult, middle-grade and picture books, Woodson has been a National Book Award finalist twice as well as the recipient of a Caldecott Medal, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Newbery Honor Medal and the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement..

Her young adult novel, “Miracle's Boys,” directed in part by Spike Lee and featuring Tiki Barber, was adapted for a miniseries on the N, now the Disney Channel, in 2005. Her middle-grade book, “Locomotion,” about a fifth-grader learning to tell the story of his life in poetry, has been adapted for the theater and will be shown at the Kennedy Center in Washington in October.

“I try to write about stuff that is important and stuff that matters,” Woodson says. “I think some people will say I write about real issues in life. Someone else might say, ‘It's just everyday life,' depending on your experience.” Although Woodson's early protagonists were black females, she now writes across the spectrum of gender, sexuality, race and class. “The rule of early writing is, ‘Write what you know,'” she says. “As I had more faith in my writing and got braver, I started branching out.” Accessing the interior landscape of adolescence doesn't come easily, Woodson says. “The thing is, I work hard. We don't want easy. I hope people want a challenge and the reward that comes with the challenge.” S

Jacqueline Woodson will be featured at the eighth James River Writers Conference at the Library of Virginia on Oct. 8-9. For information and to register, call 433-3790, or visit jamesriverwriters.org.

Article author Valley Haggard serves on the board of directors for the James River Writers.

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