I heard Newbery-Honor author Jacqueline Woodson speak recently on the theme of “Windows and Mirrors.” The basic idea is that children’s and young adult books need to allow us a view into another world while simultaneously reflecting our identity back to us. It’s a call to diversity, an insistence that literature offer authentic mirrors for minority children. At the same time, it broadens and reaffirms the notion of the universal. It defines a very difficult line for children’s and YA novelists. Woodson’s After Tupac and D Foster (ages 10 and up) gives us an example of how wonderfully she walks that line.
Despite the title, you don’t have to be familiar with Tupac Shakur—a hip-hop legend who died a violent death at a young age—to “get” this novel. Tupac grounds the story in a particular place and time, between late summer 1994 and September 1996 following his death. Woodson also subtly positions the rap star as a symbol of some of the book’s themes: the bonds of friendship; the relationship between kids and their mothers; the African-American’s unfair vulnerability to violence and imprisonment.
Tupac’s fame and fortune also make him a symbol of a larger world of possibilities. The unnamed narrator and her friends grow toward that world as they reach their twelfth and thirteenth birthdays. Tension between this wide world and the single city block the narrator and her lifelong friend Neeka are not permitted to leave reflects the tension between the specific and the universal—the window and the mirror.
Early in the novel, the narrator describes herself this way:
Lately, I’d been feeling like I was standing outside watching everything and everybody. Wishing I could take the part of me that was over there and the part of me that was over here and push them together—make myself into one whole person like everybody else.
She is divided between the small, familiar world of her childhood and the world of the possible, of what her friend D calls her “Big Purpose.” As a voracious reader, she connects to that larger world through books. Later on, she and Neeka connect to it more directly, deciding to “roam” with D to a different part of the city. They find a fancy amphitheater and loudly announce, “We’re here!” to its wide open, echoing spaces.
The girls experience a moment of freedom, of connection to the wide world without negative consequences. After all, this is not a tale of the hidden dangers of the city. This is a story about expanding life through friendship and music, about the struggle to unite the part of us that belongs to the small world of our beginnings to the broader world we can choose to enter as we grow up.
Of course, this is also the story of D, the foster child who already has the wide world in her freedom to roam during the day. D longs for a more intimate and reassuring world. The narrator imagines that D and Tupac—in part for D a symbol of broken and restored connections with her mother—are together in the end, and that D is “finally whole.”
The universality Jacqueline Woodson achieves in After Tupac and D Foster comes from her genuineness as an author who has contemplated the broad human condition as well as the condition specific to her race and gender. It is also a testament to her talent and skill as a writer that this book—which might in lesser hands have been just another “issues book,” sacrificing storytelling for social relevance—is such an engaging read.