And I loved it. I tore through it, totally wrapped up in Laurel’s war with herself — with the conflict of externally having what other girls want but living with this invisible heaviness that slowly ate her from the inside out. I loved the deep but nuanced dive into the power of peer influence and the weight of grief. As an adult who had been cheer captain and class president, a high schooler who “seemed to have it all,” as a classmate once put it, but who also fought to hide her relative poverty and a troubled home life, I got Laurel. And though I never spiraled into drug use, I appreciated seeing what might’ve happened if I’d chosen that path.
It was the first explicitly teen-centered book written by a fellow black woman to crawl down inside me, grab hold of my heart and squeeze.
In truth, I could’ve grabbed any of Woodson’s books — and there were plenty to choose from in both the YA and middle-grade sections of the library where I found “Meth Moon” — but I was afraid.
The fiction I was used to reading by lauded black female writers — Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Nella Larsen — while rich and textured and stimulating, oozing that elusive snap, crackle and pop known as literary merit, often left me feeling emotionally wrung out. The works were stunning in their authenticity and in the way they made the struggle of blackness tangible through metaphor, and by exposing the truly horrific circumstances black folks have had to live through in this country, they revealed an indomitable resilience inherent in our spirits.
But they were painful to read. They are painful to read, still.
By the time I heard about Jacqueline Woodson, I’d had enough gut-wrenching reading about people who looked like me, thank you very much.
So. I grabbed the book about the white girl.
Woodson’s writing stuck with me. There was something about the way she cut to the core of a narrative using the fewest words possible — but always the right words. As a budding writer myself, that was something I needed to figure out how to do.
I decided to check out the audiobook versions of “Locomotion” and “Peace, Locomotion” from the library next, knowing full well that I might be wading into arduous waters. I figured listening would make the blows to my spirit easier to take.
And there were some blows. Of course there were. It’s a pair of books — one in verse and one epistolary — written from the perspective of a black boy who, after the loss of both parents in a fire, winds up in foster care separate from his baby sister. (I teared up even typing that just now.)
There was — is — something else, though. A thing that I have since discovered is laced through every Woodson children’s book I’ve had the pleasure of devouring: hope.
It’s true of “Beneath a Meth Moon,” and it’s true of her books about black children: “Miracle’s Boys,” “Feathers,” “If You Come Softly,” “After Tupac and D Foster,” and on and on. It’s even true of her book about herself, the (deservedly) acclaimed “Brown Girl Dreaming.” And it’s that balance of truth and hope that will keep a literary-heartbreak-hating reader like me coming back to her kid lit, as we call it, over and over again.
But what of Woodson’s adult fiction? It could be said that books written for children have to be hopeful; otherwise, no one would buy them. Is the veritable queen of kid lit — Woodson is the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, after all — able to bring that same balance of veracity and optimism to her fiction for grown-ups?
In fact, “Red at the Bone,” Woodson’s second work of adult fiction in three years, does much more than perfectly balance truth with hope. The multi-point-of-view, time-hopping saga traces the effects of race, religion, sexuality and class through three generations of a black family in Brooklyn, beginning with the youngest member, Melody, as she prepares for the coming-of-age ceremony that exists in the narrative as an opening, a bridge and a coda. It is through this ceremony that we learn of Melody’s strained relationship with her mother — whom she calls by her first name, Iris — and her mother’s strained relationship with her own parents and with Melody’s father. We see the consequences of self-sacrifice for the happiness of another and the inevitable fallout that permeates the relationships of a woman who chooses herself and a future of her own making over the one that’s expected of her.
We see that love is enough — until it isn’t. The power of hurt both inflicted and received, hidden and exposed, unintentional and fully known. We see life, and we see death — of feelings, of people, of hopes and dreams. Things lost and things found. A shoving apart and a coming together.
But what’s more than all that, “Red at the Bone” showed me something I didn’t realize I needed in a book: home.
Because throughout their trials, tribulations and triumphs, the people in this book were my people. This family, my family. Their ups, their downs, their pains, their pleasures, I have known them like I know my own skin.
Their history is my history.
“Red at the Bone” is a narrative steeped in truth — and, yes, it’s painful. But it’s also one of healing and hope.
Thank you, Ms. Woodson, for leading me home.
Nic Stone is the author of several books for young readers, including “Odd One Out” and “Dear Martin.”
At 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 19, Jacqueline Woodson will be in conversation with Lynn Neary at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC.
RED AT THE BONE
By Jacqueline Woodson
Riverhead. 196 pp. $26