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Where Author Jacqueline Woodson Would Like To Take Young People's Literature In 2018


At the Library of Congress today, Gene Luen Yang officially ended his tenure as national ambassador for young people's literature and handed the baton to Jacqueline Woodson. She is the sixth children's book author to hold the position. And for the next two years, she will be encouraging children and teenagers to read and to read more. NPR's Lynn Neary talked to the two writers about the job.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Gene Luen Yang admits that when he became ambassador two years ago, he was a little disappointed. He thought the job would come with a few more perks.

GENE LUEN YANG: Yeah. I thought there would be a crown and maybe, like, a helicopter of some kind, but none of that happened.

NEARY: As she takes on the job, Jacqueline Woodson has no illusions about the perks. But if anything, she has higher expectations.

JACQUELINE WOODSON: My hope is that by that time I'm no longer national ambassador I'll have changed the world.

NEARY: OK. So the national ambassador for young people's literature may not be the most powerful position in the nation's capital, but Yang says it has rewards of a different kind.

YANG: At a very fundamental level, I got to go to all these different places. I got to hear voices. You know, I got to hear the voices of kids.

NEARY: Each ambassador gets to choose his or her own mission. For example, Jon Scieszka, who held the position first, was particularly interested in encouraging young boys to read. Yang, an award-winning graphic novelist, challenged kids to step out of their comfort zones and read about different kinds of people, unfamiliar topics or new types of books.

YANG: The nation is getting more diverse. And that is reflected in the material that draws the kids in. And I mean diversity in every sense of the word, not just cultural diversity, but also diversity of format. You know, I think kids today are more open to more different kinds of stories than kids in the past.

NEARY: Yang is thrilled to be handing over the job to Jacqueline Woodson, winner of numerous awards, including the National Book Award for her memoir, "Brown Girl Dreaming."

WOODSON: I get to decide my own vision in the end about the work I want to do, how I want to do it, what rooms I want to walk into, what people I feel have not had the kind of access that they should have - mainly underserved people, people in rural communities, incarcerated people - and really point my energies in those directions.

NEARY: Woodson says she'd love to get rid of labels like struggling reader or advanced reader and encourage young people to concentrate more on how a book makes them feel or think.

WOODSON: Labeling is not the best way to get young people to deeply engage in reading. I mean, at the end of the day, you take the qualifier away and they're a reader. Childhood, young adulthood is fluid. And it's very easy to get labeled very young and have to carry something through your childhood and into your adulthood that is not necessarily who you are.

NEARY: Woodson has come up with her own mathematical equation to spark conversation about literature.

WOODSON: Reading equals hope times change. So of course it's that play on words, but it's also the fact that we come to books looking for the hope in them. And when we close a book, we're a different person than when we first opened that book. And reading begins a conversation. And my hope is that we can start having these conversations that literature triggers around the country.

NEARY: Woodson sees the job ahead of her as a continuum of the work that her predecessors have started. Looking back on his own tenure, Gene Luen Yang says the national conversation Woodson hopes for is already underway.

YANG: I think that human storytelling is this long conversation about what it means to exist, what it means to live, how to live a good life. And I think being ambassador has just reinforced the importance of that conversation in my mind.

NEARY: Like her predecessors, Jacqueline Woodson will be traveling all over the country to meet with young people. No helicopters or private planes will be involved. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACK WILKINS' "RED CLAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.