Danika reviews Autobiography of a Family Photo by Jacqueline Woodson



I recently read my first Jacqueline Woodson book, The House You Pass On the Way, and really enjoyed it. I was expecting Autobiography of a Family Photo–same author, similar size, both with queer content–to have a lot in common with that book, but this turned out to be a completely different reading experience. Autobiography of a Family Photo is arranged in very short chapters, usually between one and three pages, and the next chapter often leaps forward a year. They tackle the turmoil of a family, and the tone is pretty dark. Poverty, sexual abuse, war, and homophobia are all touched on in this slim volume.

The short scenes feel like they just offer a glimpse at what is going on. They reminded me of poetry in that there was clearly a lot to be unpacked from each scene. What seems to tie this book together is trauma, both personal and the broader trauma of growing up poor and black (and queer) in an environment that punishes you for existing. It’s how each character attempts to deal with this trauma, including self-destructive behaviour. It’s the ongoing process of survival, all while trying to come to age and build an identity.

I read this during the 24 hour readathon, and that was clearly not the best context for this book. Although it is a small book, it would benefit from reading in small doses with a lot of time for reflection. Jacqueline Woodson’s writing is evocative and sparse. This isn’t a book that I would pick up lightly. It’s bleak, and it leaves a lot to the reader to interpret and connect. If you’re willing to commit to to it, though, I think this has a lot to offer.

Danika reviews The House You Pass On the Way by Jacqueline Woodson


You may have heard of Jacqueline Woodson from her recent win of the National Book Award for Brown Girl Dreaming, but you might not know about some of her older books, or that she’s written lesbian books. The House You Pass On the Way has been on my radar (and my shelves) for a long time, but the recognition that Woodson has gotten recently finally convinced me to pick it up. This is a tiny book, only 99 pages in my edition. It’s the story of the summer when Staggerlee was fourteen, and when she felt confused and alone. It’s also the summer when she met her (estranged, adopted) cousin Trout.

This is a book that tackles some quintessential young adult topics: confusion around identity, isolation, and, of course, falling in love over a summer. But these are topics that are handled so well. Some stories I feel like I can just sink into and be absorbed by, and within a few pages, I knew this was one of them. It’s an atmospheric novel, as well as an emotional one. Woodson somehow managed to evoke a lot of feeling within a very small space. It’s subtly done, and there are layers at work here. Not just sexual identity issues, but also being mixed race, as well as dealing with being a minor celebrity due to her grandparents’ cause of death.

I wouldn’t go into this book expecting a love story, but it is an interesting and moving story about accepting yourself and finding a place in the world. I would highly recommend this one.

Ashley reviews The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson


The House You Pass on the Way is truly the epitome of a short and sweet book. In it, Jacqueline Woodson masterfully conjures a vivid picture of life in rural South Carolina, shedding light on the complexities of growing up as a mixed-race queer girl in barely 100 pages.

Evangeline, who dubs herself Staggerlee at age nine, is a protagonist that everyone will want to root for. Growing up with a white mother and black father in a predominately black town presents a unique set of challenges for her – Staggerlee is often considered to be stuck-up by her classmates, and is ostracized due to her shyness and perceived “white” snobbery.

Staggerlee also grapples with aspects of her identity beyond her race, and feels that she cannot share these particular struggles with her family. When her first friend makes her feel more than she anticipates, Staggerlee begins to wonder if she is a lesbian. Her confusion about her sexuality is not spoken aloud, for Staggerlee believes she must wait until she is sure about herself to tell anyone her secret.

All of this changes when Staggerlee’s adopted cousin, Trout, comes to visit. Trout and Staggerlee first bond over the fact that they both changed their names (Trout’s given name is Tyler), but soon realize they have much more in common than that. (I’ll refrain from writing any spoilers, but it is not too difficult to predict what other qualities the two characters may share…).

Trout not only provides a glimpse of a more open and accepting world outside of Sweet Gum, but she saves Staggerlee from her loneliness. She is the only person Staggerlee can truly confide in, and, despite the fact that they do not always agree, Trout and Staggerlee’s friendship highlights the importance of having someone to be honest with in times of confusion.

Though Woodson’s story is categorized as Young Adult, I would say that it is geared towards even younger readers. While its length and simplistic language made it a breeze to read, The House You Pass on the Way also exemplifies Woodson’s ability to heavy subject matter. She knows how to make tough topics accessible without diluting the seriousness of the issues, and perfectly portrays the difficulty of navigating your identity as an early teenager.

While Woodson’s plot is seemingly straightforward, her depiction of Staggerlee’s search for her true self raises questions that continue long after the story ends. Woodson’s depiction of race and sexuality confront what many adolescents face, as she details the complexity of being black and white and possibly lesbian in a way that will resonate with readers of all ages.