Sunday, February 11, 2007

Swimming Into History

In her Newbery Honor picture book, Show Way, Jacqueline Woodson draws a long, bright thread through history that radiates her deep and abiding love for family and freedom.

Woodson begins her story by remembering the life of one of her ancestors, a nameless slave in Virginia, and ends telling family stories to her own daughter, Toshi, born free more than a century later and living with Woodson in their Brooklyn home.

In prose that reads as elegantly as poetry, Woodson swims into history, relating two stories simultaneously--the story of her own family and the history of her people and their struggle for freedom.

Her rich, storyteller's voice creates a strong sense of intimacy so that a reader turning the pages of this book might feel as if he or she were eavesdropping on Woodson as she tells her daughter stories each morning.

In this retelling of a family's history, the stories focus on faith and love rather than on the harsh reality of slavery. You'll find stories about slaves who couldn't read but knew how to interpret pictures. They mastered skills with needle and thread to create quilted patterns of flying geese, twisting roads, and the north star pointing the way to freedom.

For many of Woodson's ancestors, freedom was a distant dream. Yet this story shows how their skills and faith in themselves and in the future kept their dream of freedom alive over centuries.

That dream, like a long and sturdy thread, was passed through the hands of the women in Woodson's family... all the way to Woodson herself... and, finally, to Woodson's daughter, in whose heart that dream finds fulfillment.

As each successive generation of children enters this world, Woodson writes a variation of the refrain:
Loved that baby up so.
Yes, she loved that baby up.
These words evoke in the reader a sense of a family's love for each child, a love that transcends time as each generation lifts the next generation up...and up... and a higher spiritual (and social) level than the one before.

By the time Woodson's daughter, Toshi, enters the world, all the dreamers who came before her offer her their shoulders to stand on.

It's their love and belief in the future--in the idea of a future--that kept the dream alive for her so that one day she might live in a world that they could only dream of.

In Show Way, Woodson shows us how to swim into the past using the currents created by swimmers who were swimming long before we stepped into the water.

Try to feel the currents of your own family's history as you enter the water today.

Can you feel the strength and courage of your ancestors? And can the memory of their hopes and dreams help you swim further than you ever dreamed before?

For more information on Woodson's work, visit her website:

For interviews with Woodson, check out:

For a better understanding of African-Americans and quilting, see:

And for information about the controversial "myth" of quilts and the Underground Railroad, see:


gaelwriter said...

Nice article on Woodson. It’s so easy to get absorbed in her stories, and to feel you’ve been given insights into the lives of memorable youths, and the adults who affect their lives. I particularly liked one of her replies to an interviewer’s question: “Part of writing realistic fiction, for me, is giving my characters hope. Even if the ending isn’t always the happiest ending, there has to be hope and happiness somewhere in the book for me as a writer to really feel good in writing it. I want to enjoy the process of writing it, and I want my characters to be okay.” Amen. That’s my feeling as a writer, too. I don’t want the story to have an unearned ‘Hollywood’ ending, but I want to keep hope alive, “even if the ending isn’t always the happiest…"

Andromeda Jazmon said...

I love love love this book! You wrote a beautiful review of it too. I appreciate your links - what a lot of research! I recently posted about the underground quilt controversy too. It is fascinating and complex.