Reading & Literacy Q&A

Stop Using the Label ‘Struggling Reader,’ Author Jacqueline Woodson Advises

By Brenda Iasevoli — February 05, 2018 6 min read
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In January, author Jacqueline Woodson was named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress. She designed her platform—Reading = Hope x Change (What’s Your Equation?)—to spark conversations about how reading can help young people create, as she puts it, “the world they’d like to live in.”

Woodson is a four-time Newbery Honor winner, a two-time Coretta Scott King award winner, and was named the 2015 Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation for her memoir-in-verse Brown Girl Dreaming. She is the sixth author to take on the two-year role as the nation’s premier advocate for young people’s literature. The first National Ambassador, in 2008, was Jon Scieszka, followed by Katherine Paterson (2010-11), Walter Dean Myers (2012-13), Kate DiCamillo (2014-15), and Gene Luen Yang (2016-17).

Woodson talked with Education Week about how she plans to use her new platform. (The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.)

You have said that you’d like to use your platform as ambassador to steer people away from using labels like “struggling reader.” What do you see as the harm in these labels?

Woodson: Any kind of qualifier can be harmful because who we are is not static. Our abilities are constantly changing. What does it mean to be a struggling reader? I know if I was raised in this day and age, I would have been labeled a struggling reader. But what I know now is I was actually reading like a writer. I was reading slowly and deliberately and deconstructing language, not in the sense of looking up words in the dictionary, but understanding from context. I was constantly being compared to my sister who excelled, and it made me feel insecure. What gets translated is ‘you are not as good,’ and that gets translated into our whole bodies. That’s where the danger lies.

So it’s not what you read, or how fast, but what you get out of reading?

Woodson: First and foremost, young people should be passionate about reading. In the 6th grade I still enjoyed reading picture books. It informed me as a writer. Even now, I tell people that if they want to understand how a novel is structured, look at a picture book. It’s all there.

Another part of your platform is to show kids who might be anxious about the future how books can help them to remain hopeful. How can reading help them do that?

Woodson: What you see when you read is people who have survived. It could be contemporary survival, like surviving middle school, or it can be historical survival, shown in the story of the Underground Railroad, the civil rights movement, or the Women’s March. We can turn to books for the hope we need in the moment.

Is the “We Need Diverse Books” movement part of that hope?

Woodson: Yes, one of the first steps is to give young people access to relevant literature. If they don’t have access to books that speak to them, then we are already failing them. Young people are diverse, and I’m not just talking about racially or economically, or in terms of gender or gender preference. There are just so many ways that young people are different from one another. It is so amazing that this renaissance is happening, when all these different kinds of books are becoming available.

When you were a kid, was it difficult for you to find books that inspired you?

Woodson: We lived at the public library. We had to go there after school and wait for my mom to pick us up when she got off from work. We had limited classroom libraries, but I still was able to find Mildred Taylor and Virginia Hamilton. I grew up in the age of Judy Blume and I loved her. Looking back, it would have been nice to have more options.

Where will your term as Ambassador of Young People’s Literature take you?

Woodson: I want to go to a lot of rural places in Mississippi and Alabama, where typically young people might not get the chance to meet authors. I want to visit prisons and juvenile detention centers. Of course, I also want to get to as many libraries as I can. So it’s just about getting out there to as many venues as possible and spreading the gospel of reading.

What do you hope to achieve by visiting prisons and detention centers?

Woodson: The school-to-prison pipeline is real. It’s important for me to show up and make sure people know their rights. In a lot of prisons and detention centers, books are being censored. One book, The New Jim Crow, was censored because it talks about the history of mass incarceration and what it looks like and what it means. And some people are saying, ‘No, you can’t read that.’ Books should not be censored because a system is afraid of being dismantled. We know the power of books. There are so many people who have studied law in prison, and then gone on to get law degrees and challenge the system of mass incarceration.

What do you do to get kids interested in reading?

Woodson: I talk about myself as a young reader. I talk about their power, about their right to read, and their right to ask for the books they want. They should have books in their classroom libraries that mirror who they are. If they don’t, someone is remiss. If I’m visiting an underserved school, I’m also talking with teachers about organizations like First Book, and about making sure all students are empowered with library cards. It’s all about giving kids that access.

Do you have any advice for teachers?

Woodson: Know who your students are. I’ve gone into schools where I wanted to read Visiting Day, a picture book about a girl whose dad is incarcerated, and teachers have said, ‘We have no kids with incarcerated relatives in our class.’ I started talking about the book and how my uncle was incarcerated and come to find out, there are 10 kids in the class whose mothers, or brothers, or uncles are in prison. Get to know your students, make no assumptions about them, and you’ll be better able to help them choose literature that is relevant. A lot of times kids don’t want to read because they haven’t seen themselves or anything that interests them in a book.

Take boys who think they don’t like to read. The minute they start reading Ghost by Jason Reynolds they’re gone. They are enrapt. You have to be under a rock to not know Jason Reynolds at this point in time, but I’ve met people who have never heard of him. Find current books to engage young people. Authors are always tweeting about the latest books.

As often as you can, read aloud to students. You will see a difference. My son is 10, and if it’s up to him he would read Big Nate books all day long. When I see him reading, I see his passion, I see his joy. But at night I could go up to him and read aloud The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and he loves it just as much.

You said you enjoy being alone and writing and that the idea of taking on this extroverted role was intimidating. What ultimately convinced you to take it?

Woodson: Talking to Carla Hayden [the first woman and the first African-American to become Librarian of Congress] who has worked so hard, and I watched her go from her work at the Enoch Pratt Library [in Baltimore] to Librarian of Congress. We are living in a time where we have to show up. As Ambassador, I’m trying to show up, do the work that I’ve been called to do, and not be afraid or resistant to it.

Photo: Juna F. Nagle

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.