Painting a vibrant picture of Brooklyn in the tumultuous 1970s

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NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 19:  Jacqueline Woodson attends 2014 National Book Awards on November 19, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images)

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HARI SREENIVASAN:  Next: a novelist and poet who writes for young people and adults, and a new work of fiction that looks back at a world she knew well.

Jeffrey Brown makes a new addition to the “NewsHour” Bookshelf from Brooklyn, New York.

JACQUELINE WOODSON, Author, “Another Brooklyn”:  The basketball courts have moved.  They used to be along here.  But they came along and renovated the park.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Did you come back up here when you were writing?

JACQUELINE WOODSON:  I did.  I wanted to talk about walking through it.  I really wanted to get this park on the page.

JEFFREY BROWN:  The park is in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, where author Jacqueline Woodson came of age in the 1970s.

Her new novel, set in that time and place, is about four teenage friends, as Woodson writes, growing up girl in the city, with big aspirations, but also suffering terrible losses along the way.

It’s called “Another Brooklyn.”

JACQUELINE WOODSON:  I knew that it was going to be an story about friendship and the way people come together and eventually come apart.

So, I just went in.  And, of course, having grown up girl in Brooklyn myself, it was — it was — I had some information that I needed to tell this story.

JEFFREY BROWN:  And you wanted to tell this because?

JACQUELINE WOODSON:  I don’t think it’s a story that’s really been told in that way that we talk intimately about the complexity of what it means to grow up, not only girl, but to grow up a girl of color, and grow up specifically an African-American girl, or a Caribbean-American girl, in the city.

I had the main character of Bushwick, which is a character I knew well because I grew up there, but I wanted…

JEFFREY BROWN:  You mean the place as a character?

JACQUELINE WOODSON:  Yes, the place.

JEFFREY BROWN:  So, you felt that from the beginning?

JACQUELINE WOODSON:  Yes, yes, I knew that Bushwick was going to be the main character, that everything was going to revolve in this neighborhood.

JEFFREY BROWN:  The Bushwick of the 1970s that Woodson describes had more than its share of problems and dangers, especially for young girls.  Drugs were everywhere.  White flight was well under way.

But she also recalls a vibrant place, with young people, like her characters, who aspired to and achieved great things.

JACQUELINE WOODSON:  It was very much alive, and I wanted to capture that, especially given how people think of Bushwick as this place that’s newly discovered.

And every time I hear that, I’m just like, no, there were people here before then.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Do you fear that that history has been lost?  Is that part of what is going on here?

JACQUELINE WOODSON:  Yes, I think it can get lost.

But I think writers are the history keepers, right?  We’re the ones who are bearing witness to what’s going on in the world.  And I feel like it’s our job to put that down on paper, and put it out into the world, so that it can be remembered.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Woodson told her own story of growing up in South Carolina and then Brooklyn in her 2014 free verse memoir “Brown Girl Dreaming,” where she describes how she dreamed of being a writer at the age of 7.

Why a writer?

JACQUELINE WOODSON:  When I was a kid, I got in trouble for lying a lot, and I had a teacher say, instead of lying, write it down, because if you write it down, it’s not a lie anymore; it’s fiction.

So I was, like, wait.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Ah, that’s your definition of fiction.

(LAUGHTER)

JACQUELINE WOODSON:  Yes.  It’s legitimized.  I was like, wait, there’s a way out of this.

But, also, I just loved the physical act of writing.  And when I learned to write my name for the first time, there was such a power to realizing that you put letters together, and they make words, and you put words together, and they make sentences, and sentences make paragraphs.

And that was magic to me, that all you needed was this pencil and a notebook, and you were on your way.

JEFFREY BROWN:  On her way to a life of writing and many honors.

Woodson is author of more than 30 books for children and young adults.  Her memoir won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.  The new novel is her first for adults in 20 years.

Woodson still lives in Brooklyn in a different neighborhood.  And when we returned with her to Bushwick, she kept running into old friends, this one in front of her childhood family home.  Like much of the neighborhood, it’s been renovated.  Brooklyn itself is another Brooklyn now, gentrified, with whites moving back in.

Woodson says she always wants to tell the bigger story, beyond her characters.

JACQUELINE WOODSON:  It’s always been me in the context of the bigger world, in the context of the greater good, in the context of what is this story trying to say, and why is it trying to say it, and what does it mean to someone outside of this experience?

So, even as I’m creating the characters, and putting them on the page, and having them move around, I’m thinking, what does it mean?  When I put four black girls on the page, what is it going to mean when it goes out into the world?  How are they going to be represented?  How are they going to be digested?  So — and what is my responsibility in all of that?

JEFFREY BROWN:  Jacqueline Woodson now has another responsibility.  Last year, the Poetry Foundation named her young people’s poet laureate.

From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

HARI SREENIVASAN:  You can see Jacqueline Woodson read her poem “Bushwick History Lesson” on our Web site at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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