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History And Race In America In 'Red At The Bone'


One of the most popular authors of novels for young readers has a new novel for older readers. Jacqueline Woodson's new novel is "Red At The Bone." It tells the stories of two families in Brooklyn, brought together by a fleeting love that produces an enduring child and family chronicles that weave inside the stories of history and race in America. Jacqueline Woodson, who wrote "Another Brooklyn," a previous novel for adults, and novels for young readers that include "Brown Girl Dreaming" joins us from New York. Thank you so much for being with us.

JACQUELINE WOODSON: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Tell us about the very opening of the story. It's in a Brooklyn brownstone. Sixteen-year-old named Melody - it's her debut - a cotillion, I guess. And she chooses a Prince song in which to descend the stairs - not exactly a song from a Disney princess film, is it?

WOODSON: No, and Melody is definitely not a character from a Disney princess story. And I think that the juxtaposition between that song and the ceremony that she was a part of was really interesting to me in talking about the way cultures and generations clash and what the outcome of those clashes are. So here is a girl who's 16 and having her coming-of-age ceremony, and she's being introduced to society via Prince on orchestra because, of course, her parents don't allow her to have the words to the song.

SIMON: What does Melody want to tell her family, her mother with this entrance?

WOODSON: I think she wants to say, I'm here, and I am my own narrative. And I think when I was writing "Red At The Bone," one of the things I was thinking about is the way we can sometimes try to put our own backstories on our children. And in that scene, Melody is announcing herself - capital H, you know? - and saying, this is who I am, and I come through you, but I'm not necessarily of you.

SIMON: Let's tell a little of that backstory. She is the daughter of Iris, her mother, and Aubrey, her father. They both love her, but how do I put this? She became a part of their lives in a way they hadn't planned for.

WOODSON: Yes. Iris got pregnant as a teenager. Aubrey is Melody's dad. And the narrative revolves around the families. And what does it mean to be a family? You know, what does it mean to be a family that comes together suddenly through the birth of a child by two children?

SIMON: Iris says, recollecting when she found out she was pregnant, she says, 15 and I wasn't even anybody yet. And she makes a choice to step away from bringing up Melody. She goes off to Oberlin at a time when it might've been difficult to understand a choice like that.

WOODSON: Yeah. And I think for me as a writer and someone who's trying to not only push against the boundaries of what a novel is, quote, unquote, "supposed to be," but also who the characters are supposed to be. And in this case, here we have Iris, who comes from this wealthy family, and it's not the stereotype, right? Someone who gets pregnant young is from an underserved community or, quote, unquote - and I'm putting these in huge quotes - "broken home" - because I don't believe in that phrase, but I'm talking about a home where maybe there's a single parent. And here is this child who comes from this home. She's very privileged. And she gets pregnant. And so she realizes after the baby is born that, no, this is not the end for me; I want something more, and ends up going to Oberlin. But I wanted to push against that idea that there is only one way to be a mother.

SIMON: What have you learned writing for young readers that might transfer when you write for adults, because this book is so lyrical and so evocative?

WOODSON: I think I've learned the importance of an economy of language. You know, kids don't want a whole lot of adjectives until - I mean, some kids - I guess they do. But I know I don't, and I know my readers don't. I learned how to get into a story quickly, that there's not a lot of time to waste.

The most dangerous thing you can do as a writer writing books that young people will read is try to teach them something. And it's interesting because I'll hear adults say, oh, I want to write this book for young people because I want to teach them about A, B and C. I'm like, then write a textbook because you can't write that in a novel and have someone read it. You know, I write because I have all these questions, not because I have answers. And so writing toward those questions is something that's important to me and also something I feel like I've worked through a lot in writing books that young people read.

SIMON: We have to note on this week, of course, the events of September 11, 2001 figure into this family story. I won't give anything away, but it kind of reminds us that it figures into the lives of all of us who were around then, too, doesn't it?

WOODSON: I don't think anyone who was in this country, and, you know, me, especially being in New York, cannot wake up inside that day and not be a little frightened. I mean, as I was sending my kids off to school, I'm like, be careful, be safe, I love you. Much more intensity than any other day. It's like, have a great day, I love you, be kind.

SIMON: So many reminders in this novel that life is moments - a single instance, sometimes, of desire, loss. And they can steer our lives, can't they, even if we don't know it at the time?

WOODSON: Yeah. It all ripples out some way. And, yeah. And I think especially when we're young and we're living in the moment and thinking that is the only moment, like, the way that ebbs out into the world and the kind of, I would say, eternity of it because it goes through our lifetime and the next person's lifetime and the next person's lifetime, you know, on and on.

SIMON: Yeah.

WOODSON: You know, I'm sitting here right now, and this is part of such a larger moment.

SIMON: Well, for all of us. Jacqueline Woodson - her novel "Red At The Bone" - thank you so much for being with us.

WOODSON: Oh, thanks for chatting with me. This was fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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