For Jacqueline Woodson, hope is an essential component of a good story. Whether she’s reading or writing, “happiness doesn’t have to come at the end, but there has to be hope somewhere, to keep me engaged and wanting to move forward.”
Since her first book was published in 1989, the much-lauded author of 30 books and counting has created many characters who are dealing with difficult problems. “They have to figure out what they’re going to do with the hand they’ve been dealt,” Woodson says from her home in Brooklyn, where she lives with her partner and their two children. “For the most part, kids are so resilient, and they do figure out a way to move through it.”
Her latest book for teens, Beneath a Meth Moon, opens on a bleak day in the life of 15-year-old Laurel. She’s a pretty blonde who, not long after moving to a town called Galilee, makes the cheerleading team, meets a new friend (Kaylee) and boyfriend (T-Boom) and becomes a meth addict.
Laurel and Kaylee’s budding friendship will feel familiar and sweet to anyone who’s felt that frisson of delight at the start of something good. And under Woodson’s hand, when Laurel and T-Boom lock eyes on the basketball court, their attraction is palpable: “Just me and T-Boom, seeing each other—not for the first time, really, but yes, for the first time. . . . He’s home to me, and I don’t even know him.”
Behind the 7-Eleven just hours later, when T-Boom offers Laurel meth and she unhesitatingly breathes it in, her acquiescence is horrifying and sad but, thanks to Woodson’s skill, not entirely surprising. Readers have already learned that Laurel is hobbled by grief and searching for a way to blunt her feelings of pain and sadness.
Woodson doesn’t reveal Laurel, or her other characters, in a linear manner; she moves back and forth through time, from present-day conversations to snippets of thought and memory. Until she was 11, Laurel and her family lived in Pass Christian, Mississippi, on the Gulf of Mexico with its pretty water and warm sand. But those memories get crowded out by what came in 2005: Grandma M’lady decided not to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina and Mama stayed with her, while the rest of the family went to Jackson to wait for them.
Like so many others, M’lady and Mama did not survive the hurricane. Woodson compassionately renders the shock of those left behind, and, by extension, the efforts made by anyone experiencing such sadness to adjust to their new burden. Laurel’s father moves her and her younger brother, Jesse Jr., to Galilee in hopes of putting the past behind them, but, Woodson says, “This promised land, this dry land, is not what they expected.”
“There are so many great reasons to be here, to be whole, to be fully in the world no matter what our life situation is.”
The author’s own grandmother died a few years ago, and her mother died suddenly just before she started to write Beneath a Meth Moon. “You have to figure out what happens to you,” she says. “How does the world change for you, what do you do with that change? And here’s Laurel having lost two important figures very quickly, and being lost in a way that makes absolute sense.”
While Laurel’s meth use doesn’t make sense to Woodson in a literal way (like this writer, she read Go Ask Alice in her youth and the book had the desired, frightening effect concerning the dangers of teenage drug use), she says that writing Beneath a Meth Moon was a way to explore things she’d wondered about—like the children who survive a massive, tragic event, or people who decide to take a drug they know to be dangerous and destructive.
She says of the young Katrina survivors, “What happened to those kids, emotionally, psychologically and physically, given this kind of loss? You just don’t hear about them, unless they survived and went on to play for the Dallas Cowboys . . . otherwise, people are apt to just disappear. I don’t want that to happen.”
And, she asks, “Why would anyone even put meth to their nose? Seeing the damage that drug can do, why would you make the choice to do it? Who would do it, why would they do it, what would be their reason for living?”
Through the character of Laurel, Woodson says, “Hopefully what readers get is that there are so many great reasons to be here, to be whole, to be fully in the world no matter what our life situation is.”
That sense of promise—that hope—is present not only in Laurel’s story, but in those of her family and friends, too.
There’s Kaylee, who sticks around even when she doesn’t understand or agree with Laurel’s decisions. “To some extent, Laurel is Kaylee’s hope,” Woodson says. “What Laurel brings to her is the bigger world. She’s done something else, lived another life, and they’re going to escape together.”
And there’s Moses, a young man who paints murals of children who died of drug overdose. He’s kind to Laurel, but also matter-of-fact in noting that she may well be one of his subjects someday.
The author says she can relate to the push-and-pull of being a teenager trying to imagine the future: “I think kids have to make choices all the time about who they are becoming. It’s part of identity politics: ‘Am I who you’re naming me to be?’ Those moments of not being who you want to be, of wanting to get past it and be something else. And having gone through that myself as an adolescent, not wanting other people to decide my fate—like becoming a writer, when the message was, you don’t come out of this community to be a writer, you become a blue-collar worker.”
Certainly, Woodson has moved far past that proscription. Her books have garnered many honors—including several National Book Award nominations, three Newbery Honor awards, ALA Best Book for Young Adults nods and more.
With the timely, unflinching and empathetic Beneath a Meth Moon, she adds another powerful story to her critically acclaimed body of work.