The paranormal may not figure in her work, but Jacqueline Woodson has been writing ghost stories for years. “I think that’s what all historical fiction is, to an extent. If it has any kind of emotional gravitas to it, then it is about ghosts. The past in and of itself is a ghost,” she tells me from a writers retreat in Griante, Italy, when we speak by phone.
Set in Bushwick, Brooklyn, during the 1970s, Woodson’s new middle-grade novel, Remember Us (Nancy Paulsen Books, Oct. 10), follows a 12-year-old Black girl named Sage who watches as her neighborhood is wracked by a series of mysterious fires. Though it’s a work of fiction, the novel was inspired by Woodson’s own experiences growing up in Bushwick; her neighborhood was dubbed “the Matchbox” by many newspapers due to the many fires. It’s a story she’s long felt compelled to write, but figuring out how to tell it has taken nearly her whole life. “I started writing it as a screenplay at one point,” she says. “I started writing it as a long poem. I started writing it as a letter to my childhood. I feel like I had all these false starts and then finally landed on telling it through the lens of fiction, with that emotional core of truth to it.”
Many of Woodson’s works are rooted in personal experience, from the National Book Award– and Newbery Honor–winning memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), to the picture book The World Belonged to Us (2022), illustrated by Leo Espinosa. Writing helps her revisit her childhood. “That’s the beauty of literature. It can take us all home again.”
Going home presents some challenges. Though Woodson doesn’t live all that far from her old home—she resides in Park Slope, Brooklyn—the Bushwick of her past feels worlds away from the gentrified neighborhood of today. The park where she once played basketball is now covered in Astroturf, while the graffiti she remembers has long since been scrubbed away. To get into the right mindset, she listened to the music of the era, from Earth, Wind & Fire to José Feliciano. She also looked at old photos to home in on details like the bluestone sidewalks. “Even now, when you walk down certain streets, the siding is very new and different than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago,” she says. Reminding herself of how things looked and sounded helps her “get back into the place.”
Woodson infuses Remember Us with more joy than she felt at the time. Like her protagonist, she saw friends and neighbors lose their houses to the fires. But despite the pain, Sage’s love for her neighborhood is palpable. In one of Woodson’s favorite scenes, Sage and her new friend Freddy look on as a young boy named Jacob jumps on an old, half-burned mattress. As she wrote, Woodson was charmed by “the absolute joy I felt in his joy”: “all those somersaults and him just flying through the air and all the joy in that and his bright green shorts and just the blur of him and Freddy and Sage watching it.”
She adds, “There’s this joy circling the edge of a lot of devastation. In the moment, it didn’t always feel joyful. So I think I rewrote it to show the joy in retrospect, and that’s different from what it was in the moment.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Woodson found herself pulled back to her adolescence once more as sirens permeated the air—this time not from firetrucks but from ambulances. “I think about the things that our young people are going through and, by extension, adults, too. When we have young people in our lives, we experience [things] twice—through our own experience of it and through the experience of the young people we love…watching how it shapes them, how they’re moving through it.”
She adds, “It always takes me back to my own childhood and what I’ve moved through, and I think that’s a way of being able to connect with [young people] and also have empathy for what they’re going through.”
Throughout her career, Woodson has displayed an intuitive understanding of the way young people see the world, and she brings that sensitivity to bear on her latest novel. Sage, who prefers basketball to makeup, has started to feel out of place among her female friends. While shooting hoops one day, she’s harassed by a boy who takes her ball and taunts her (“What kind of girl are you?…I should punch you in the face just to show you you ain’t a dude”). That was the scene Woodson found toughest to write. In an early draft, the boy merely yells at Sage before leaving, but Woodson was inspired to change it after her friend the musician Toshi Reagon, who reads all her work, confided that she’d had a similar experience growing up; hers ended with the boy taking her ball and then punching her. Though Woodson didn’t want to write a violent scene (Sage emerges physically unscathed), she did want to convey the hurt Sage feels. “The violation is not just in him taking her ball; it’s what he says to her that cuts deeper, because it’s an age where you’re already questioning everything about who you are, whether you’re aware of it or not. There’s such a deep fragility to adolescence.”
Keenly aware that young people grappling with such roiling emotions need patience and understanding, Woodson wrote Sage’s mother as more of a “21st-century mom.” When Sage, reeling from her encounter with the boy, lashes out by setting fire to the bathroom, her mother is initially furious but eventually listens when her daughter opens up about her uncertainties. Woodson’s own mother likely wouldn’t have been so sympathetic, she says, but her “hope is that I’m having that relationship with my own kids. Being able to just talk.”
A mother of two—a daughter, 21, and a son, 15—she often draws from her own experiences as a parent. “As a writer, I truly have to be both the parent and the child to be able to tell the story.” To readers, it’s clear that Sage “just had this trauma; she’s feeling kind of trapped; she’s feeling unattractive.” But her mother “has no sense of any of that.” For Woodson, it’s crucial to be able to present events in a multifaceted way. “I love being able to do that—to be in both their heads and understand why things happen.”
Though Sage feels confused and alienated, she ultimately finds a sense of belonging when she meets other girls who share her love of basketball. “People forget there was a time before the WNBA. It’s such a young organization. There was this time when there was such an isolation to being a girl who loves sports. Now we see people like Sha’Carri Richardson and Brittney Griner and all these people bearing the flag.”
Woodson hopes that readers will take solace in seeing Sage find her people. “For me, it felt like such a triumph and kind of a message for myself. If I’m the only one loving this, it does not make me wrong. If I feel alone in this moment, I’m not actually alone. There’s somebody, or many bodies, out there who have these same desires, who have these same talents, who want to play ball or run track or write a book, whatever it is. Eventually you find your community, and it becomes such a triumph and a reckoning and a validation.”
Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.