Jacqueline Woodson Wants Kids To Know The Beauty — And The Danger — Of Football

Sep 10, 2020
Originally published on September 10, 2020 5:53 pm

Many of Jacqueline Woodson's books tackle serious issues in a way that's accessible for kids: Race, drugs, foster care, classism, intolerance.

Her latest book does that, too. It's called Before the Ever After and it's written in the voice of a 12-year-old boy whose father is a professional football player, a big star both on TV and to the neighborhood kids. But his father is also suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the degenerative brain disease that's been diagnosed in many collision-sport athletes.

Before the Ever After documents his father's decline. But first we get to know his dad. How he loves playing football. How he loves his family. And how when his son and a group of his young friends pile laughingly on his back, he shakes them off "like feathers."

That's Jacqueline Woodson's lovely writing. I asked how that description came to her.

"A lot of times it's really visual for me as I'm writing it," she says. "What would it look like to have these little boys climbing on this dad and they think they're, quote unquote, tackling him and he just rises up and shakes them off, you know? Does he shake them off like marbles? Does he shake them off, you know, like stones? It's like no, he shakes them off like feathers cause they're really not tackling him at all. And it is about, for me, just rewriting and rereading and listening to how it sounds out loud to get to the images that are in my head. And it's almost like I'm trying to draw the picture with the words — the pictures that I see in my head, I can't draw, but I can do it with words."


Interview Highlights

On reworking and playing with words

And getting rid of them. I think, you know, trying to get to the essence of what I'm trying to say without overwriting — it's so easy to add a bunch of adjectives, or say it: he's 223 pounds, he's this tall, you know, he has these broad shoulders. And for me, that doesn't paint an image that's going to eventually lead to having deep empathy for this person. You want to see him becoming as the narrative progresses.

On whether she meant the book's fragmented style to reflect the effects of CTE

I did. I did. And also the urgency of it. So it's kind of like these small moments of what he has, right? Because he doesn't have this long, looping narrative anymore. He has these small moments of clarity where his father has clarity, these small moments when it's his dad's good day, these small moments of memory. And I really wanted the book, the shape of the book, to represent what was happening in his life.

On choosing this topic for a kids' book

I think one of the things I'm always concerned with as a writer is telling the truth. And I think a lot of times people don't tell the truth about about the trauma that contact sports can play on the body. We see the glory, we see the hailing of it. And now, of course, we see the politics of it, but we don't see the damage that families sometimes experience, the damage that, you know, sons of dads experience, and dads themselves.

I want them to know the beauty of the sport ... And I want them to know the damaging impact of the sport. - Jacqueline Woodson

And for me, challenge has always been, how do I tell a story for young people and tell it with love, right, and tell it with empathy and tell it in a way that's not going to break them. And finding that balance is always kind of the challenge I want. But at the end of the day, it's like, what do I care about as a writer? What stories do I want to tell? And I really wanted to tell the story of CTE and the impact it has on everyday people.

On whether the book is advising kids to stay away from football

It's a fine line when you're a writer, right? Of course, people who write young people's literature are subversive in some way. We are writing the narrative. And at the same time a book can't be didactic. Because you lose the reader right away.

So I never say I write to teach or to give advice, but I think in the case of Before the Ever After, I want young people to have the whole story, you know, I want them to know the beauty of the sport. It is a beautiful sport. I want them to know the history of the sport, that it actually started with a pigskin bladder. And I want them to know the damaging impact of the sport. So it isn't me just trying to say this one-sided thing, don't play football. I want to say, know what this means.

This story was produced for radio by Andrea Hsu, edited by Justine Kenin and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Many of Jacqueline Woodson's books tackle serious issues in a way that's accessible for kids - race, drugs, foster care, classism, intolerance. Her latest book does that, too. It's called "Before The Ever After," and it's written in the voice of a 12-year-old boy whose father is a professional football player, a big star.

JACQUELINE WOODSON: (Reading) Every Sunday night, I'd run to the TV the minute the game was on. I didn't care about the crowds cheering in the stands. I didn't care about the cheerleaders or the referees in their striped shirts or the coaches getting mad at the referees. I just wanted to see my daddy, No. 44, tight end. I wanted to see him running past the 40, 30, 25, 20, 15, 10-yard line. I wanted to see him make the touchdown. And if anyone got in his way, I wanted to see him go into them hard, helmet to helmet, body to body, again and again and again until it was like he'd pushed straight through a concrete wall that wasn't concrete but was defensive ends and linebackers, helmet to helmet.

PFEIFFER: Those Sunday nights are over. The boy's father is suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, the degenerative brain disease. "Before The Ever After" documents his father's decline before CTE was fully understood. But first, we get to know the dad, how he loves playing football, how he loves his family and how when his son and a group of his young friends pile laughingly on his back, he, quote, "shakes them off like feathers." I asked Jacqueline Woodson how that image came to her.

WOODSON: A lot of times, it's really visual for me as I'm writing it. What would it look like to have these little boys climbing on this dad? And he, you know - and they think they're, quote-unquote, "tackling" him. And he just rises up and shakes them off, you know? Does he shake them off like marbles? Does he shake them off, you know, like stones? It's like, no. He shakes them off like feathers 'cause (laughter) they're really not tackling him at all. And it is about me just rewriting and rereading and listening to how it sounds out loud to get to the images that are in my head. And it's almost like I'm trying to draw the picture with the words that - the pictures that I see in my head. I can't draw, but I can do it with words.

PFEIFFER: So you do spend a lot of time wrestling with words, playing with them, reworking, reworking.

WOODSON: And getting rid of them.

(LAUGHTER)

WOODSON: You know, trying to get to the essence of what I'm trying to say without overwriting. I think - it's so easy to add a bunch of adjectives or say it. You know, he's 223 pounds. He's this tall, you know. He has these broad shoulders. And for me, that doesn't paint an image that's going to eventually lead to having deep empathy for this person. You want to see him becoming as the narrative progresses.

PFEIFFER: Right. Because you see this football star and the game starts to take a toll on him, you know, the forgetfulness, the trembling hands, the headaches. I wonder if you could read for us a portion of this on Page 64 where you're - we're beginning to get this ominous sense of decline.

WOODSON: (Reading) The first time you forgot my name feels like yesterday, feels like an hour ago, feels like I blink and you forgetting is right there in front of me. Me and you were sitting at the dining room table doing a puzzle. Daddy, I said, your hand keeps shaking. And you looked up at me slowly. It was like your eyes lifted up first and then the rest of your head followed. I don't really know how to explain what I saw, the way everything seemed to slo-mo down to nothing except your eyes looking at every part of my face like I just appeared in front of you. What's your name again, boy? Daddy, I said, you play too much. I asked you what's your name? And then your eyes weren't your eyes anymore. And I got up and ran through the house yelling for Mama.

PFEIFFER: Jacqueline Woodson, you wrote this book, "Before The Ever After," in verse, which has a fragmented style. And CTE is a disease that basically fragments the brain. Did you mean for that parallel to exist?

WOODSON: I did. I did and also the urgency of it. So it's kind of like these small moments of what he has, right? Because he doesn't have this long, looping narrative anymore. He has these small moments of clarity where his father has clarity, these small moments when it's his dad's good day, these small moments of memory. And I really wanted the shape of the book to represent what was happening in his life.

PFEIFFER: You do convey this intense family love. And it made me think that this book is both a tragedy and a love story. I'm wondering, do you think it's more of one than the other, more love, more tragedy?

WOODSON: I think at the end - throughout, there is love. And the love is - at some point, it's a heartbreaking love, sometimes a deep - always a deep, unconditional love and sometimes, you know, a tragic love. And so the impact and the tragedy of CTE is definitely - the essence of it is through out the narrative, but there's also the hope, right? And there's also the connection, and there's also the history that they're holding on to.

PFEIFFER: Of all the topics you could have chosen for a children's book, a young adult book, why this one?

WOODSON: I think one of the things I'm always concerned with as a writer is telling the truth. And I think a lot of times, people don't tell the truth about the trauma that contact sports can play on the body. We see the glory. We see the hailing of it. And now, of course, we see the politics of it. But we don't see the damage that families sometimes experience, the damage that sons or dads experience and dads themselves. And for me, the challenge has always been how do I tell a story for young people and tell it with love - right? - and tell it with empathy and tell it in a way that's not going to break them? And finding that balance is always kind of the challenge I want. But at the end of the day, it's like, what do I care about as a writer? What stories do I want to tell? And I really wanted to tell the story of CTE and the impact it has on everyday people.

PFEIFFER: Your book didn't come across to me as political or as advocacy, but I still wondered if you were trying to send young people an explicit message not to play football or at least not tackle football. Is that the advice you're trying to give?

WOODSON: It's a fine line when you're a writer, right? Of course, people who write young people's literature are subversive in some way, right? We are writing the narrative. At the same time, a book can't be didactic - right? - because you lose the reader right away. So I never say I write to teach or to give advice. But I think in the case of "Before The Ever After," I want young people to have the whole story, you know? I want them to know the beauty of the sport. It is a beautiful sport. I want them to know the history of the sport, that it actually started with a pigskin bladder. And I want them to know the damaging impact of the sport. So it isn't me just trying to say this one-sided thing - don't play football. I want to say, know what this means.

PFEIFFER: That's Jacqueline Woodson, author of "Before The Ever After." Jacqueline, thanks for talking with us. Your book is beautiful.

WOODSON: Oh, thank you for your great questions. It was lovely talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.