February 2003

Jacqueline Woodson

Poetry in motion
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Wonderfully innovative, Locomotion is the story of a young boy named Lonnie, a.k.a. Locomotion, who loses his parents in a house fire. His younger sister, Lili, is adopted by a wealthy family, while Locomotion is placed in a foster home. The story is told through Lonnie's eyes as he attempts to express his anguish, fears and dreams through poetry.

For Jacqueline Woodson, writing about an inner-city African-American boy was only one part of her project. Locomotion not only tells the thoughtful, insightful story of a young boy in search of himself, it also teaches its readers about the art of verse. "I hated poetry growing up," says Woodson, who was raised in Greenville, South Carolina, and Brooklyn, New York. Which is why one of her writing teachers was so surprised to hear that she had written an entire book devoted to the genre. "I think it was more that I was afraid of it," says Woodson. "I didn't understand it until I started getting rid of the line breaks."

The fear of line breaks wasn't Woodson's only obstacle to enjoying poetry. "When I was growing up, we read Robert Frost's poems. I didn't know what it was like to 'stop by the woods on a snowy evening'," she says, "because nothing like that ever happened in Brooklyn or South Carolina."

It wasn't until she read a poem by Langston Hughes called "I Loved My Friend" that Woodson felt she could actually relate. "He was one of the first people I understood," she says.

Woodson has written numerous titles about city life and the neighborhoods she grew up in. Her book Miracle's Boys received the Coretta Scott King Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2001, while If You Come Softly was named an ALA Best Book for Young Readers in 2000.

With Locomotion, she hadn't planned to delve into a poetry narrative. "I had been reading some poetry that my friends had written, and a light came on in my head," she explains.

"Poem Book," the first poem in Locomotion, helped put her creative energies in motion. As young Lonnie says, "This whole book's a poem 'cause every time I try to/ tell the whole story my mind goes Be quiet!"

From there, Woodson explains, things just took off. "I started thinking of different circumstances and different types of poems," she says. "Commercial Break," "Lili," "God Poem" and "Pigeon" were all inspired by experiences in Woodson's own childhood, whether it's noticing the differences between TV and real life, combing out hair braids, "roofing bottles," or watching the neighbor tend to his pigeon coop.

As she began writing through Lonnie's eyes, he became a character all his own. "As it happens with many of my characters," Woodson admits, "I began to like him a lot."

The character Woodson has created in Lonnie gives the reader rare insight into the mind of a young boy on the verge of becoming his own person. It's a glimpse full of anger, sadness, fear and confusion feelings that many young readers will be able to relate to.

Equally as important, Lonnie's story reminds us that poetry is not just about sonnets and odes or Dr. Seuss rhyming. It does not have to be intimidating. Woodson, who teaches at the National Book Foundation Summer Writing Camp, offers this advice to young readers who may be put off by the genre: Try not to think about the line breaks when you read a poem for the first time. Then go back and read it a second time with the breaks, so that you can better understand it.

Indeed, if there's one thing Woodson's audience will learn from Locomotion, it's that verse can be a powerful, meaningful way to express one's thoughts. That's right—poetry is cool.


Heidi Henneman writes from San Francisco.

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By Jacqueline Woodson
ISBN 9780399231155

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