TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Jacqueline Woodson won a National Book Award for her memoir "Brown Girl Dreaming" about growing up in the segregated South and in Brooklyn. The award was in the category of young people's literature. Her new novel tells a similar story, but it's focused on a girl's teenaged years, and it's written for adults.
The main character, her father and younger brother move to Brooklyn from a small town in Tennessee when she's 8, just after her mother has died. The story follows her as she becomes a teenager in the urban North and tries to find her place there. In the Boston Globe review of the book, Kaitlyn Greenidge wrote, with "Another Brooklyn," Woodson has delivered a love letter to loss, girlhood and home. It is a lyrical, haunting exploration of family, memory and other ties that bind us to one another and the world.
Woodson is now the young people's poet laureate, a position named by the Poetry Foundation. Woodson moved to Brooklyn from Greenville, S.C., with her mother when she was a child and continues to live there.
Jacqueline Woodson, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd love it if you'd start with a short reading from "Another Brooklyn." And just to set it up, this is after your character has moved from Tennessee to Brooklyn and is still adjusting to what it means to be in Brooklyn.
JACQUELINE WOODSON: (Reading) We had blades inside our kneesocks and were growing our nails long. We were learning to walk the Brooklyn streets as though we had always belonged to them - our voices loud, our laughter even louder. But Brooklyn had longer nails and sharper blades. Any strung-out soldier or ashy-kneed, hungry child could have told us this.
GROSS: Jacqueline, your novel "Another Brooklyn" is set in Brooklyn, and it's dedicated to the neighborhood Bushwick, which is where you moved with your mother when you moved north. Would you describe what your neighborhood was like then?
WOODSON: So I came to Bushwick in the late '60s, and it was a changing neighborhood. It was on the edge of white flight, so the white families were moving to places like Long Island and Queens and wherever white folks moved back then. And it was becoming a neighborhood that was predominately black and Latino and a neighborhood of strivers, people who had come from other places through the Great Migration or through immigration itself and - to build a better opportunity for their families. So it was very alive. It was - my memory of it was this beautiful, kind of heartfelt vibrancy of a place.
GROSS: So when you moved to Brooklyn, was there a period when you and your girlfriends had razors in your kneesocks?
WOODSON: (Laughter) Oh, man, my mother would have kicked my behind.
WOODSON: No. No, there wasn't, but we definitely knew people who did. And we definitely were pretty afraid of them. But it was that kind of sense - and I talk about it in the book - they're mimicking Pam Grier, right? And so that was one of the amazing things about the actor. She would pull these razors out of this huge Afro. And it kind of blew my mind as a child. She was so bad...
WOODSON: ...In that really cool way.
GROSS: So there is this constant sense of danger in the book, in part because, as you write, there were men lurking in corners and behind stairways, you know, who could sexually attack these girls. Did you have a different sense of danger in Brooklyn than the kind of danger you felt when you were younger and living in South Carolina?
WOODSON: That's such a good question. I think that I was younger in South Carolina. So I think the danger - looking back on it - not that I was aware of it in my childhood - but there was the danger that came with segregation - right? - this idea that as a person of color, you could do something wrong.
And I always talk about history repeating itself. I mean, we look at what's happening today and the way that we have to talk to our children of color differently because it's such a dangerous time to be a person of color. And I think that was happening in - for me in the South as a child. There were these rules that I had to follow because of Jim Crow.
Even after Jim Crow was supposed to not be a part of the South anymore, there were still ways in which you couldn't get away from it. And I think once I got to Brooklyn, there was this freedom we had. And the freedom - you know, it was before the whole helicoptering. So there was this freedom to roam neighborhoods and bear witness to the stuff that was going on.
And even with what I talk about in "Another Brooklyn" with Vietnam and people coming home addicted to heroin, that was terrifying to me to just watch someone in a nod and know that that was the life they were living. And it felt like I was kind of watching it in this bubble because I was a very protected child at the same time.
GROSS: What protected you?
WOODSON: The rules (laughter) of my family. I think - I knew that if I did the wrong thing, I would be in trouble. My mom was very strict. And we were very religious. So I knew that I was not allowed to do the wrong thing. And I knew that I had a home I could run to. And I had a mom.
And then later on, I had a grandma - who were there to protect me to - if something happened - if someone were going to attack me - if something - if some man jumped out at me in a hallway, I knew I could come back. And that person would probably not be either alive or free for very long just because there was a ferocity to my mom's protectiveness.
And also, it was a neighborhood where neighbors really watched out for each other and everybody knew everybody. And if I did something wrong and the neighbor saw it, by the time I got home, my mother would know. So I felt like the neighborhood really was this kind of cape I wore that did protect me from the things that were even going on inside the neighborhood.
GROSS: When there was danger and your mother knew about it, would she call the police or would she just take it into her own hands?
WOODSON: No, no, no.
GROSS: Not - yeah.
WOODSON: Nobody was trying to call any cops.
GROSS: I thought you might say that. Yeah.
WOODSON: No. Even back in the day, we knew that that wasn't the thing to do. She would take it. You know, I remember, as a kid, getting bullied by a teenage boy. And I hadn't told my mom because I wanted to protect the teenage boy. And my mother found out. And I remember her storming down the block to that boy's mother and yelling at him for - yelling at the mom for what - for the boy.
I think he had punched me or something - something that just broke every rule because even back then, it was like, you never hit a girl. And so - and my mother yelling at the mother about not having raised her son right. And of course, I was kind of mortified because here was a mother getting into the mix. But at the same time, it was like, wow, you know, she's got this.
And that was the kind of thing that happened. And when I think about that boy's mom, I think there was an embarrassment because I think she knew that this kind of rule of the neighborhood had been broken.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jacqueline Woodson. And her new novel is called "Another Brooklyn." There's a section I want you to read. You know, we've been talking about, like, the dangers that face girls and teenage girls. And, you know, one of the dangers that they face, really, is getting pregnant when they're not ready to be pregnant. And you write about that really beautifully. So there's a section I want you to read in which one of the girls - not one of the main character's best friends - but this is a girl who's, like, the captain of the cheerleading squad. She gets pregnant. And after the girl gets pregnant, she's sent back down South. And this reading starts with your main character and her friend's reactions to what's happened.
WOODSON: (Reading) We pushed our boyfriends away, buttoned our blouses. We knew down South - everyone had one - Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico - the threat of a place we could end back up in, to be raised by a crusted over single auntie, a strict grandmother. Down South was full of teenagers like Charlesetta (ph), their bellies out in front of them, cartwheeling and barren front yards as chickens pecked around them.
We shivered thinking of Charlesetta's belly and imagined her and her boyfriend together while her mother was at work. How many times had they done it? How did it feel? When did she know?
We sat on stoops looking toward Charlesetta's house. We thought she'd come home with a pink blanketed baby in her arms. We imagined her taking up her spot again on the squad, her blue and gold pompoms in the air. Come on, team, fight, fight with all your might, might. Get on the floor and let's score some more. Go, boy. Her ponytail bouncing, her bangs low over her eyes.
When time passed and she didn't come home, we imagined she'd come home babyless (ph), the crusty auntie, a pinched face grandmother, raising the child as her own, sending Charlesetta back to her life in Brooklyn.
GROSS: Did you grow up being really afraid of getting pregnant and what that would do to your life and to your plans for your life?
WOODSON: Was I afraid of that? You didn't do it. I mean, that was just the rule in our house. So I don't think I was ever afraid of it because I knew it wouldn't happen. I think that given - and it's interesting because I think this happens across economic lines and across races. It's not just this thing that happened to a few girls in an under-served neighborhood. I mean, I think young girls are at the risk of getting pregnant all the time because they have the ability to, right?
And I think that's kind of one of the myths in our society that only a certain type of girl gets pregnant. But in my house, you weren't going to get pregnant. That just was not going to happen. And the - our mother had plans for us, and those plans were not going to be stopped by us getting pregnant. So I wasn't afraid of it because I knew it wasn't going to happen.
GROSS: What did she tell you that made it clear that this was not going to happen?
WOODSON: You better not get pregnant (laughter) and she's - you know, I'm not - if you ever - if you get pregnant, I'm not raising your child. And the idea that to be a teenager and to be pregnant and to have your life stop in this way was just - it was of no interest to any of us. Like, we were very free in this way and wanted to stay that way. And also when you think of teenage girls and you think of how aware they are of their bodies and how they don't want those bodies to change, that's, you know, a means of stopping it from happening. But it was, you know, it was the '70s and it was then the '80s. And for me, growing up, it was just, no, this is not going to happen.
GROSS: Did you have friends or know of people in high school that it did happen to?
WOODSON: I do. I have - I know there were two people I knew. And then there were - there was another person who I didn't know but I saw in the neighborhood. And that was - that was always - it made me sad. Even as a really young person, it made me sad. And I think one thing I talk about when I'm talking about this character Charlesetta and asking, how did it feel? When did she know? One of the questions I think I ran through my head was, was it - did it feel worth it? Because I think that happens a lot for really young people is - if it's not enjoyable, man, that's a double bummer.
So - but it's interesting because it's part - I think it is such a part of girlhood. And I can't say enough how it's not just - this book is a lot, for me, about black girlhood because black girlhood has historically not been on the page in the way - it's been on the pages in some ways but not in this way. And, again, saying that, in terms of thinking about teenage pregnancy, that is not only about black girlhood. That is about all girlhood and always.
And I think for people who have more money, a lot of times the girls who got pregnant, we never knew. But then there were the ones who economically or because of religion or whatever the reasons weren't able to get rid of the baby. And so for them, it was that sending down South or that having to move through the pregnancy.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jacqueline Woodson. Her new novel is called "Another Brooklyn." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Jacqueline Woodson. She's currently the young people's poet laureate. She won a National Book Award for her young people's book, "Brown Girl Dreaming." Her new novel is for adults, and it's called "Another Brooklyn." And it's about a girl who moves north with her father from Tennessee after the death of her mother.
She moves to Brooklyn and has to kind of reacclimate herself to the city as opposed to the country, to the North as opposed to the South. She has to find friends. And she has to find her place.
So when you were in your teens and you had your group of girlfriends, did you have a sense of how you and your girlfriends' lives were different from your male counterparts' at the time?
WOODSON: You know, it seemed like - I can't speak for my friends. But I remember - and I don't know if this was part of my moving toward no longer being straight - but I remember thinking that the guys had a freedom that the - that we didn't have - that they could hang out on the corners and talk junk, that they - I loved playing basketball. I never got to get a basketball court because they had to house them all. I - and I felt like they took up space in a different way, in a way that I wanted to take up space in the world. And we existed in the world differently.
But that said, at the same time, when I was with my friends, guys weren't always so much on our radar because we were so into ourselves (laughter) in this way and into kind of the enormity of the lives we were living. So it was really kind of that double consciousness going on where I was - part of my brain was thinking about guys this way and then another part of my brain was thinking about women this way. And then I had a boyfriend who I was also - you know, who kind of was a really, really good guy and is still one of my closest friends who kind of got me as the girl I was in terms of - I was such - I was such a tomboy in so many ways.
You know, I was so on my way to coming out but didn't - had no clue about it at all and just existed. I feel like, again, and this is what young adulthood is, is you're existing in all of these different worlds at once and just trying to figure out which one you're going to eventually land inside of. And I think we're all doing that, the guys and the girls. I think one thing that - the guys were so afraid of us - right? - in this way because guys are supposed to be cool and they're supposed to like girls and, you know, they're supposed to be suave and all of this stuff. But they didn't know what to do with young women. (Laughter) So - but they were supposed to. So that's a whole other scary story that was going on. So it - I just think the beauty of adolescence is partly its complexity.
GROSS: Tell me more about that other story that was going on.
WOODSON: The other story that was going on with guys?
WOODSON: I think, you know, especially for adolescent boys, a lot of them are virgins. And I think it's kind of not OK to be that. You're supposed to have had some kind of experience. And so you make believe you did or you lie about it, and you're terrified. And I think even when you think of something like abstinence, like, you know, there are a lot of young guys who are not ready for the next thing. But there is this way in which society says this is who you're supposed to be and this is what you're supposed to be doing now. So I think that in and of itself is a very terrifying experience. So...
GROSS: When you were in your teens, did you hear a lot of discussion about homosexuality and what it meant to be gay or lesbian? And if so, did that shape your understanding of what it would mean to come out?
WOODSON: No. I think when I was a young person, there was just kind of - there was very little dialogue about it. And there was just kind of one way to be gay, right? You saw very effeminate guys. You saw very butch women. And there was no kind of in-between. And there was no - you know, there wasn't anything in the media. There wasn't anything on television. Or if it was - and the stuff in literature you read - the gay person usually died in the end.
So there was no promise of that world. And of course, it's not like it is now. But also, I feel like I didn't - as a young person, I kind of didn't know that's who I was becoming because I just didn't have the mirrors there to say, oh, this is what you are. For me, it was like, here we all were. We were all teenagers together. We had our girls. We had our boys, you know?
And we eventually would get together and grow up and have lives as straight people because that's what was - that's what the world did, one thought, until one left the world they were in and moved into that next place. So it was - for me, it wasn't until college, where I started meeting other people who are queer who - I said, wait, this is a possibility, too? So - but it wasn't - it definitely wasn't happening in Brooklyn.
GROSS: My guest is Jacqueline Woodson. Her new novel is called "Another Brooklyn." After we take a short break, we'll talk about growing up with a mother and grandmother who are Jehovah's Witnesses and an uncle who is a Muslim in the Nation of Islam. And our rock critic, Ken Tucker, will review two new recordings of political songs. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jacqueline Woodson. Her new novel, "Another Brooklyn," is based in part on her memories of being a teenager in Brooklyn in the 1970s after having moved there from Greenville, S.C. Woodson's memoir, "Brown Girl Dreaming," won the 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. And she's now the young people's poet laureate, but her new novel is intended for adults.
You describe your family as having moved north as part of the Great Migration. I'm sure you didn't think of it that way at the time. When did you start to think of your family's move as belonging to a larger pattern?
WOODSON: I think once I learned what the Great Migration was and the - and then looking back on the years - and that we left the South to come to the city. I must have been about 15 or 16 when I started looking at us in a bigger historical context. And I don't know what the impetus for that was. But it gave me, I think, this certain strength to know that we were part of something bigger.
And it's interesting in terms of thinking about writing, you know, you can just write and focus on one character and one thing that propels them through the narrative. But whenever I write, it is about the context of my character in the bigger world. And I think that comes from when I was young and always thinking of us in part - in terms of being part of that bigger world and that greater good.
GROSS: Your story is about a girl who lost her mother, and the girl can't really accept that. She doesn't quite comprehend that her mother's dead. She doesn't really want to comprehend that. And in the novel, the father washes the girl's hair twice a week - I mean, once every two weeks and then sends her to a neighbor to get her hair cornrowed. Did how you dealt with your hair change when you moved north...
GROSS: ...And how you wore it?
WOODSON: Yeah. My grandmother was really good at doing our hair (laughter). And my mom, not so much. So - and my sister and I had a lot of hair. And so I think my mom was just overwhelmed. So - but she was - so my grandmother was always the hair person in our family. But once the '70s came and we - people were cornrowing their hair, for a long time my family wouldn't let me get my hair cornrowed because I think they thought it was this worldly hairstyle. And we were religious, so we weren't supposed to be worldly that way. And then they did let me get my hair cornrowed, and it was very freeing because when your hair's cornrowed you don't have to deal with it for a couple of weeks. So...
GROSS: Who did it for you?
WOODSON: There was a teenager named Kim (ph) who lived around the corner, and she would braid my hair sometimes. And then, when I got older, I learned to braid it myself. But keep in mind that I had to wear ribbons for a long time.
WOODSON: So that was also a reason that cornrows were very freeing - that I got to kind of hide the ribbons a little bit.
GROSS: Who made you wear the ribbons?
WOODSON: My mom and my grandmother. I think it was this idea of keeping us looking as young as we possibly could look (laughter).
GROSS: How did - and how did you feel about that?
WOODSON: You know, I loved the actual ribbons. I loved the ritual of ribbons because you had to wash them. You had to iron them. You know, you had to tie this perfect bow. I hated being beribboned (laughter). You know, I hated being this girl-child who had to wear ribbons. So - but my mother and grandmother thought it was beautiful. They were from the South. It was a very Southern thing. And it's so funny because when I see - you see these kids these days, and they have those big bows in their hair. You know, they'll have, like, really straight hair and then just a bow stuck in it. And I'm, like, oh, that's so not-cute to me.
WOODSON: But I think it's because it brings back this whole ribbon era in my life.
GROSS: You write about the blackout. What year was the blackout?
WOODSON: It was 1977.
GROSS: And you were a teenager at the time, at least your character was. And you describe your main character when she's a teenager looking out the window during the blackout and seeing teenagers running toward Broadway and asking - and she was asking again and again if she could go. And her father said, it's stealing. We don't steal - because there was a lot of looting going on then. What was the blackout like for you?
WOODSON: It was exciting. I remember it being really, really hot and just kind of this moment of silence where no one knew exactly what was going on. And we lived in Bushwick, so we lived right on - the kind of Bushwick-Ridgewood border, which was a number of blocks from Broadway. About five blocks from Broadway. Long - it was a long walk there.
And so there was this moment where people thought the fuses had blown. And people just thought the lights went out on one block. And then, suddenly, you hear this kind of din growing of people realizing that the whole city was dark. And I don't know why people ran to Broadway. I don't know. The other place to go would have been Myrtle Avenue - Wyckoff and Myrtle, where there were a lot of stores, but not as many as Broadway.
And looking back on it, I do wonder if people had some kind of vendetta against the stores on Broadway because that's where a lot of the shop owners sold people stuff on layaway, on time. And my mom always talked about how overpriced the stuff was on Broadway. But then, suddenly, I don't know how much time had passed, but people were coming back. And they just had boxes and boxes of stuff. They had television sets and shoes and coats. And they had broken the windows of the stores and just got "free stuff," quote, unquote.
GROSS: In your novel, your character's father and brother convert to Islam after the father meets people from the Nation of Islam and has a new girlfriend who's from the Nation. And the main character, the teenage girl, is kind of confused. Like, how can there be two gods? Because God's supposed to be Jesus, so who's Allah? And it's kind of confusing for her.
I know in your family, your mother and grandmother were Jehovah's Witnesses. You had an uncle who was Muslim. Did you have that kind of confusion? So, like, what does that mean that there's, within my family, two different gods?
WOODSON: You know, I never had that confusion as a child because one, the religion - I had grown up Jehovah's Witness, so it was always the way things were. And, you know, Jehovah was God. And then when my uncle spoke of Allah, what I understood was that Allah was the God of Muslims. And it made perfect sense to me. You know, Jehovah was the God of Jehovah's Witnesses. Allah was the God of Muslims.
And when I put the Nation of Islam into "Another Brooklyn," I think that people don't think of Muslims as being African-American. I think there's this idea that there's only one kind of Muslim. And so I really wanted to explore that and explore the way people come to religion. And sometimes they come to it from this place of this aha moment. And sometimes they come to it because they need the hope that that religion brings.
So it doesn't - I think what I'm bringing from my own childhood is what I know of the Nation of Islam and what I know of the way - you know, Walt Whitman said, argue not concerning God. And I didn't find that until I was much older. But from a very young age, I knew that people have religion the way they need to have religion. And it's - it was never a question for me that both gods could exist.
GROSS: What are some of the things that you took away from religion?
WOODSON: My ability to sit still and be bored for a long time.
WOODSON: I think that that kind of fueled my imagination. I think that...
GROSS: What, from sitting in church or sitting in a mosque?
WOODSON: In the Kingdom Hall - in the Kingdom - sitting in the Kingdom Hall. And also...
GROSS: The church for Jehovah's Witnesses.
WOODSON: Yes. And also, the stories of the Bible are very entertaining. And I think that I learned how to tell stories through the stories I read. You know, Jehovah's Witnesses, it's a very text-based religion, so there's a lot of reading. There's a lot of studying. There's a lot of time for solitude.
And the same with being a Muslim - there's a lot of prayer, and there's a lot of time for sitting and thinking and considering what's happening in the world and having discussions about it. So that came - I think of my family now as a very transparent family. We talk about a lot of stuff. And I grew up talking about a lot of stuff that way. I'm - you know, I'm completely grateful for how I grew up just because it allowed me to have such an access to so many different worlds that I don't think I would have had if I hadn't grown up that way.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jacqueline Woodson. And her new novel is called Another Brooklyn. And right now she's the young people's poet laureate. Let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jacqueline Woodson. And her new novel is called "Another Brooklyn."
In our previous interview, you talked a little about how - because your mother and grandmother were Jehovah's Witnesses, you proselytized door-to-door for a while when you were a child. Do you think that helped give you some poise because you had to learn how to knock on the door, assert yourself and make, you know, affirmative statements like this will do this for you? You know, I know something that - I'm a child, but I know something that you, the adult, doesn't know (laughter). And I'm here to offer you this.
WOODSON: (Laughter) I just remember being so terrified and thrilled the first time I got to be the one to speak and say, you know, my name is Jacqueline Woodson, and I'm here to bring you some good news today. I think it did give me a certain fearlessness when speaking in public. I think it's - it was always that - what I was taught was, what is there to lose? When you say what you think, what is there to lose? You can get the door slammed in your face. Is that - you know, that's not the worst thing that can happen to a person.
So it did give me this sense of - I have a right to speak. I have a right to speak up. I have a right to say what I believe in. People can choose to listen or they can't. And I think there's a part of me that thinks I'm right sometimes (laughter). So it was a lot of things, and I do think I'm still unpacking it slowly. But I'm not afraid to speak.
GROSS: So you are now the young people's poet laureate, named by the Poetry Foundation. This is a fairly new institution. What does it mean? What are the responsibilities that come with the honor?
WOODSON: To be poet laureate is to try to spread the love and the accessibility of poetry to young people. And because it's such a new role, each poet laureate gets to create their own platform. And for me, that platform is about getting into the heads of young people, especially from underserved communities, that they have a right to poetry, that they have access to it, that they can write it and read it and understand it and have their words in the world.
GROSS: Can you recite for us one of the poems that you love to recommend to young people?
WOODSON: So the poem I think of now, is the Langston Hughes poem "I Loved My Friend." And it's a very short one.
(Reading) I loved my friend. He went away from me. There's nothing more to say. The poem ends, same (ph) as it began. I loved my friend.
And I think that one, in terms of thinking about accessibility and asking them to write - well, who do you love and why do you love them? - or do you have a friend who's gone away? What did that feel like? Let's write about that. Because I think it is about getting to the emotional core of something they know so that they can then write about it. But, you know, Langston Hughes is my go-to poet for young people.
GROSS: How were you introduced to his work?
WOODSON: I think I was introduced to him with the crystal stair - (reciting) well, son, I tell you, life for me ain't been no crystal stair - the "Mother To Son" poem. And I think it was the first time I read a poem and I was like, wait, I understand what's happening here.
WOODSON: And it just kind of blew my mind that I did.
GROSS: When you're teaching or reading poetry to children or teenagers, where does rap fit into that? 'Cause - I'm sure they listen to a lot of it, and it, you know, it is a form of poetry. It's almost always a rhyming form of poetry. A lot of the poems you're interested - are not rhyming poems. And they're certainly not necessarily as contemporary as rap is. So does rap offer for you a doorway in? Or do you get more resistance because what you're recommending isn't rap?
WOODSON: Oh, man, I love rap. I don't get resistance because we always talk about rap. We talk about rap. We talk about spoken word. We talk about the rhymes they're putting down. And I always start with telling them that rap is one of my favorite kinds of poetry - and ask them to spit lyrics - you know, to give me some lyrics they've written down.
And it's interesting because they always have something - a lot of the young people I talk to can say a rhyme or two off the top of their head that they've memorized - not necessarily that they have written down. But it is kind of the connection. And then we talk about rappers. And it's Tupac versus Biggie and, you know, West Coast versus East Coast.
And I just love it because it feels like such a way to get rid of that generation gap, in terms of - and because I also have such a deep respect for rap music, from Sugarhill Gang to today.
GROSS: When you're writing for adults, as you do in your new novel, as opposed to writing for teenagers or children, do you get to use words that you otherwise wouldn't be able to use?
WOODSON: You mean like curse words (laughter)?
GROSS: Well, those - but also just like larger words, words that wouldn't necessarily be part of the vocabulary yet of a younger audience.
WOODSON: It's interesting 'cause I'm very intentional when I write. And I want to make sure the reader has access to the story without the dream of the narrative getting interrupted. I know John Gardner talked about the dream of fiction. And when you're reading it, you're right there in it. And so language is really important to me - and not only how it looks on the page, but how it moves across the page.
And so if I have some SAT-type word in there that's going to give me pause when I'm reading it out loud, then it's not going to make it into the narrative. And so that - and I think that's the same when I'm writing for young people. But I do - I play with language differently when I'm writing for adults.
I can adjust the sentences differently. I can move through time. I can play with white space. And that's the way I do things differently - not so much in terms of the words I use.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure.
WOODSON: Oh, it's been great talking with you, Terry.
GROSS: Jacqueline Woodson's new novel is called "Another Brooklyn." After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review two new recordings of political songs. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. We're living in a pretty politicized time, and our rock critic, Ken Tucker, has been listening to two examples of political music, the first by the veteran British punk band The Mekons. It was recorded in the wake of the Brexit vote. The second, by the American country rock band The Mavericks, comes in the wake of the Republican and Democratic conventions. Here's Ken's review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEAR & BEER")
THE MEKONS: (Singing) Come with us. Oh, come along. There's something going wrong. Tomorrow morning I must work. I know that you'll be gone. For those in peril on the seaside, put our faith on hold. Best to vanish without warning our land out of control.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: So it's a political year. And overseas, they're still coming to terms with Britain's vote to exit the European Union. To many, the results of the voting came as a saddening shock, and it's that reaction The Mekons address on their song called "Fear & Beer (Hymn For Brexit)." Jon Langford and his band of often-merry pranksters have spent a lot of time in Chicago in recent years, but the group originally formed in Leeds, England. They reach back to those roots on "Fear & Beer." It sounds like the kind of lovely but morose ditty the disparate patrons of a pub might gather round to sing just before closing down the joint.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEAR & BEER")
THE MEKONS: (Singing) Dismal men in dreary sea towns buzz around like flies. Someone said we know what you're thinking. Try this on for size. Deep and still, blood on the pavement, sticks and stones, hold them in your hands. A pint of fear then home by tea time for we are afraid.
TUCKER: The Mekons see the Brexit vote as a grave mistake. Quote, "a pint of fear then home by tea time for we are afraid," they sing. The Mavericks are also thinking about the state of their world. They've looked around at the American political landscape, listened to the fear and loathing in some quarters directed at immigrants and decided to record a new version of a song first popularized in 1945 by Frank Sinatra called "The House I Live In."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HOUSE I LIVE IN")
THE MAVERICKS: (Singing) The house I live in, a plot of earth, a street, the grocer and the butcher and the people that I meet, the children in the playground, the faces that I see, all races, all religions, that's America to me.
TUCKER: "The House I Live In" appeared in a short film of the same name directed by Mervyn LeRoy and was intended to spread a message of tolerance during the post-World War II era. In the movie, Sinatra stops a group of boys who are taunting a Jewish kid, and he sings a song filled with simple yet evocative images of American life, which songwriters Earl Robinson and Lewis Allen render indivisible from American freedom. Mavericks lead singer Raul Malo does a beautiful job with the lyric, avoiding any sort of vocal comparison to Sinatra, singing with full-throated fervor.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HOUSE I LIVE IN")
THE MAVERICKS: (Singing) The place I work in, the worker at my side, the little town or city where my people lived and died, the howdy and the handshake, the air of feeling free, and the right to speak my mind out, that's America to me.
TUCKER: Raul Malo told Rolling Stone that this song paints a picture of what and who we are that many have forgotten or simply are trying to erase. This is why we have decided to record it at this time. These two performances take different approaches to the current climate. The Mekons want to deny their audience the excuse of mere resignation. Their song is full of worry. The one The Mavericks have plucked from the 1940s is full of comfort. Both bands might agree with a line Frank Sinatra says just before he launches into his song. With his best street smart snicker, he says use your good American heads. Don't let anybody make suckers out of you.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HOUSE I LIVE IN")
FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) The town I live in, the street, the house, the room, the pavement of the city or a garden all in bloom, the church, the school, the clubhouse, the million lights I see, but especially the people, that's America to me.
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS")
MERYL STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins, singing) Oh, noble sir, how you err.
GROSS: ...I'll talk with Meryl Streep about learning to sing very badly. She stars in the new film "Florence Foster Jenkins" set in the 1940s based on the life of the New York socialite and heiress who performed arias and art songs totally off key and developed a following. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Meyers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan Heidi Saman and Therese Madden, who also directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
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