49 pages 1 hour read

Jacqueline Woodson


Fiction | Novel/Book in Verse | Middle Grade | Published in 2003

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Summary and Study Guide


Locomotion, Jacqueline Woodson’s 2003 novel in verse, follows the perspective of Lonnie Collins Motion, nicknamed Locomotion. After his parents die in a fire and his sister is adopted, Lonnie grieves and navigates life, first in a group home and then with Miss Edna, his foster mother. Through poetry, he slowly finds joy in life again, highlighting the themes of The Search for Identity and Belonging, The Healing Power of Writing, and The Enduring Support of Family. Locomotion was a National Book Award finalist and won the Coretta Scott King Honor, among many other awards.

This guide refers to the 2003 Scholastic edition of the text.

Content Warning: The source material depicts racism and racist stereotypes.

Plot Summary

11-year-old Lonnie begins by explaining how difficult his story is to tell and therefore, with the guidance of his teacher, Ms. Marcus, he’s attempting poetry. Sometimes he sits on the roof, imagining that his deceased parents are among the stars, and he dwells on memories, like his mother’s scent or how he used to braid his sister’s hair. After his parents died, Lonnie was placed in a group home, where the other boys told him that he was a “Throwaway Boy,” a kid who didn’t matter to anyone. When Lonnie first arrives at the apartment of Miss Edna, his new foster mother, she admonishes him to be quiet. Now, though, she wishes he’d laugh and smile more.

At times, Lonnie longs to do what he can’t, whether it’s drawing Halloween pictures or hearing his father’s voice. When Lonnie writes a sonnet for class, it’s about his family and poetry, two things he loves. He then reveals that his nickname, Locomotion, comes from his mother’s favorite song. After describing his friends Eric, Lamont, and Angel, Lonnie follows up with a letter to his father.

When his friends talk of tragedy they’ve witnessed, Lonnie remains quiet. Afterward, he admits that he doesn’t trust people to tell the truth. Amid Lonnie’s internal struggle, a new boy, Clyde, joins their class and is mocked by others for his country clothes and demeanor. On the four-year anniversary of his parents’ deaths, Lonnie is physically ill. Nevertheless, he plays basketball with his friends, and he even learns to see the beauty in pigeons. In addition, he connects with Miss Edna when they treat themselves to Twinkies.

Lonnie notices sadness everywhere. Miss Edna prays for her two adult sons, one fighting overseas and one living in upstate New York. The new boy, Clyde, keeps to himself, except at recess, when he stands with his younger sister. Lonnie himself endures taunting from his friend Eric for writing poetry during recess.

Sometimes Lonnie visits his little sister, Lili, who was adopted by a wealthy family. During these visits, he dresses up to make a good impression on her adoptive mother. Lili gives him a Bible and exclaims that he’s the best brother. Soon after this, Ms. Marcus asks students to write about their families. Angry, Lonnie has no words, so he gazes at the thunderstorm, which mirrors his mood.

Lonnie finds solace in the Bible and contentment playing basketball with friends. One recess, when he’s shooting hoops alone, a girl named LaTenya flirts with him, which makes him think he has found God. Later, he acknowledges that writing poetry can be both satisfying and frustrating, feelings that mimic the tone of his writing, which wavers between happiness and melancholy.

When Ms. Marcus reveals that Eric has been hospitalized with sickle cell anemia and that the disease disproportionately affects African American people, the students feel uneasy. Another day, Lonnie’s friend Lamont refuses to write poetry because, he says, no Black guys are poets. Ms. Marcus lists Black poets, and other students share stories, one describing a shooting in their neighborhood. When Lamont wants to know whether poets make a lot of money, they discuss happiness and poverty, and Ms. Marcus goes quiet. Later, Lamont learns that rap and hip-hop lyrics are poetry, so he’s excited to write.

Lonnie’s tone and mood continue to shift as he shares happy family memories but then focuses on how classmates treat the new student, Clyde. Soon after this, Miss Edna is thrilled about her son Rodney’s upcoming Easter visit. Then Lonnie remembers his mother calling him a survivor because he was four pounds at birth.

Eventually, Lonnie sees joy and God everywhere, whether in his sister or a warm bus on a cold day. In church, he even writes the word “hope” on his hand. At school, he notices that Clyde is talented at soccer and celebrates Ms. Marcus winning the “Teacher of the Year” award. When a reporter comments that she teaches the “underserved,” Lonnie and his friends understand that the man is calling them poor. Nevertheless, Lonnie reads one of his poems aloud, and almost everyone loves it. When Rodney visits on Easter, Lonnie is drawn to him, especially when the young man calls him “little brother.” After a short tribute to his mother, Lonnie writes a hopeful poem about catching a firefly and makes a wish. However, Lonnie’s next poem details the day his parents died in the fire.

Lonnie’s dejection is short-lived, however, because he’s ecstatic when Ms. Marcus tells him he has “a poet’s heart” (87), and when Rodney puts his arm around the boy’s shoulder. Lonnie even writes about Rodney in a poem describing a perfect moment. Later, Lonnie bonds with Clyde because the boy is from Georgia, a place Lonnie visited with his family. When Eric returns to school after being hospitalized, Lonnie writes a letter to God asking how involved He is in tragedies, like his parents’ deaths. Later, Lonnie shows compassion to LaTenya when she reveals that she was born with extra fingers.

As the novel concludes, Lonnie attends a church picnic with Lili. On this day, he eagerly anticipates going to camp with her in July and relishes the warm sun on his skin. He no longer struggles to write but instead, in his happiness, poetry spins into his head.