When you step inside a new classroom on the first day of school, anything is possible. “Every year is another chance to make friends and figure out where your dreams lie,” says author Jacqueline Woodson, who vividly remembers those moments from her own childhood. “Every time I start a book, it’s that same feeling. This is my chance to write something different and better.”
A similar sensation comes with being the Kennedy Center education’s artist-in-residence, transforming several of her stories for children into productions that families can enjoy. Most recently is a world-premiere musical based on “The Day You Begin,” a picture book that explores how kids — or anyone — can shake off self-doubt.
Woodson found inspiration from her great-grandfather William Woodson, who was the only Black child in an all-White school just after the U.S. Civil War. Even though she lives in a much more diverse world, Jacqueline Woodson can connect with how that must have felt. “There are very few rooms I walk into and say, ‘This feels like home,’ ” she says.
So Woodson filled her book with characters from different backgrounds, such as Rigoberto, who’s adjusting to life in the United States after leaving his native Venezuela, and Angelina, who must take care of her younger sister. She emphasized how common it is to feel like you don’t fit in, whether that’s because of how you look, what you pack for lunch or what you did over summer vacation.
The original title was “It’ll Be Scary Sometimes,” which Woodson borrowed from a poem she had written about William in her memoir, “Brown Girl Dreaming.”
Trying new things is usually scary but also exciting, Woodson says. She thinks about the freeing feeling of riding a two-wheel bike for the first time and finally getting to play double Dutch jump rope after years of watching older kids make it look so magical.
“Leaving the single rope behind felt like a rite of passage,” Woodson says.
The message of “The Day You Begin” is that whether you’re at a playground, in a classroom or any other place, it’s better because you’re there. You bring something special that no one else has.
Take, for example, the book “The Day You Begin.” Woodson appreciates that illustrator Rafael López didn’t just draw pictures to accompany her words — he also contributed his point of view. He scattered rulers throughout the pages to show how we compare ourselves to others. And he inserted an image of his nonverbal, autistic son, standing alone next to a tree.
His son has become the character Sam in the musical version of “The Day You Begin,” which taps into the talents of a larger team, Woodson says. There’s music (by her friend Toshi Reagon), plus dancing and unexpected visual effects, such as tiny flashlights shining to mimic rain. As they started planning, director Charlotte Brathwaite asked Woodson, “How do you feel about puppets?” She hadn’t considered them. Now they’re an important part of the show.
“I get shy, but not about creating things,” says Woodson, who’s loving the experience of seeing her story come to life in a different way. “It became once for me when I wrote the words. Now it’s becoming again in this world.”
Of course, as with anything new, it’s a little scary. Woodson’s worry last Saturday’s opening night: “Am I going to be sitting in an empty [theater]?” But she pushed away the fears and instead focused on the infinite positive possibilities.
If you go
What: “The Day You Begin.”
Where: Family Theater, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street Northwest Washington.
When: Through December 18.
How old: Best for ages 7 to 12.
How much: $20-$25. Buy tickets online at kennedy-center.org.
A photo caption in earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the title of the picture book Jacqueline Woodson is reading. The book is "The Other Side."