Jacqueline Woodson, one of today’s finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.
Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.
Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir-in-verse by Jacqueline Woodson, was released in 2014 and showered with awards including a Newbery Honor and National Book Award. So naturally, I wanted to read this as a part of exploring middle grade and for reading more books by and about African-Americans this year.
Woodson covers her early childhood and adolescence in the book, and in that short span of time she has plenty of history and perspective to cover. She’s a black girl born during the Civil Rights movement to a Southern mother but a proud Northern father who divorce when she is a baby. She’s raised in the South with her grandparents, but then her mother leaves for New York, and she and her brother and sister are raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses by their grandmother. When her mother comes back to take them to move to New York (Brooklyn), they continue the practice, and they experience the contrasts between the North and the South through constant visits. Later, she becomes very aware of the 1970s movements that surround her, particularly feminism. Plus, there are quite a few references to the music of the times, which I enjoyed.
As much of the book covers a time when Woodson was quite young and naturally doesn’t remember everything, the verse form allows her to imagine her family at moments she would not be able to see or remember. It’s a creative blend of memoir, hope, and commentary. I also loved to see Jacqueline’s growing love for writing and poetry. Her older sister was the quick-learning, book-smart one, so she felt like she disappointed teachers, but she begins to find her own voice and it’s lovely.
I sometimes struggle with free-verse book form–I think I like single poems more, and particularly poetry that experiments with form, sound, rhythm, rhyme. I like longer “single” poems, and in a lot of popular collections they are quite short and structurally simple. (And just to clarify, I’m not saying those collections aren’t poetry. I just don’t enjoy them or get as much out of them.) But Woodson here has some longer lines and variations in her poems, and the style works very well for that blend of what she remembers and what she imagines.
Brown Girl Dreaming is a great book for the upper elementary and above, especially if you’re interested in writing, poetry, African-American history and perspectives, Jehovah’s Witnesses experiences, or are just a fan of Jacqueline Woodson in general. I’m interested in reading her latest, Another Brooklyn, although that one is a fictional novel for adults. As some of her life in Brooklyn in the ’70s is chronicled in Brown Girl Dreaming, it will be interesting to see how her life influenced that story.