Earlier this week, we hosted the first YA book club of our Beyond Judy Blume program here in Portland. We had a great discussion about how sexuality, gender, and race are portrayed in The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson. Since we know lots of our readers aren't able to make it to our book club meetings, we're discussing the book here on the blog as well. Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
Have you read The House You Pass on the Way? Everyone at our book club loved it. While this YA book (1997) is only about 100 pages, we found ourselves caring about the characters and their relationships with each other, and were struck by how nuanced and honest their searches for personal identity were.
Main character Staggerlee is a 14-year-old girl with a black father and white mother, growing up in a small town in the southern US. Her father's family cut ties with him after he married a white woman, and Staggerlee, who has a hard time finding people who understand her, dreams of meeting extended family members. When her father's sister Hallique dies, Staggerlee's family is contacted by her father's sister Ida Mae, who suggests that her daughter travels to visit Staggerlee and her family for the summer. Ida Mae's adopted daughter Trout and Staggerlee have an instant connection, and find themselves discussing family, why they each changed their name, loneliness, race, and their sexualities during their summer together.
This book speaks volumes about how important it is to have people you can share yourself with. Staggerlee talks to Trout about things she's never been able to tell anyone, like the time she kissed her classmate Hazel in sixth grade. Trout affirms Staggerlee and talks about her own experiences: telling her aunt about the first time she kissed a girl, struggling with a friend who just wants to find her a boyfriend, seeing men with pink triangle pins and familiarizing herself with but still feeling very unsure of the word "gay." Trout helps Staggerlee better understand herself. Their friendship shows Staggerlee that while Trout might have been the first person she could really talk to about her identity, she's definitely not going to be the last.
The House You Pass on the Way could definitely be described as quiet and sad, and its characters do not find themselves comfortably out and proud by the end. That being said, The House You Pass on the Way reminds readers that it's okay to be unsure of who you are and where you're going in life, but that it's also important to be true to yourself.
In an interview with Penguin Group, Woodson discusses the importance of exploring identity in YA lit:
Identity has always been an important and very relevant issue for me. For a lot of reasons, I've been 'assigned' many identities. From a very young age, I was being told what I was—black, female, slow, fast, a tomboy, stubborn—the list goes on and on. And this happens with many children as they are trying to become. So that by the time we're young adults, no wonder we're a mess!! There are so many ways we come to being who we are, so many ways in which we search for our true selves, so many varying circumstances around that search. No two people are alike but every young person is looking for definition. My journey as a writer has been to explore the many ways one gets to be who they are or who they are becoming.
In The House You Pass on the Way, Woodsoon absolutely explores the many ways one can get to who they are becoming. This book, accessible to readers across the board, offers an opportunity to discuss sexuality, race, and gender in a complex way.
What did YOU think of The House You Pass on the Way? Let us know in the comments!
Are you in Portland? Join us for our upcoming Beyond Judy Blume book clubs! We'll discuss Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole on September 25th at 7pm and Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger on October 23rd at 7pm. Beyond Judy Blume book clubs are hosted at The Sexual & Gender Minority Youth Resource Center, located in Portland at 2406 NE Sandy Blvd, Suite 100. Good news: Down to the Bone and Parrotfish are available at the Bitch Community Lending Library, open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5-8pm. Pick up your copy today! More info about our Beyond Judy Blume programming here.
This program was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH's grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.