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Brown Girl Dreaming


Brown Girl Dreaming

If you’ve read Jacqueline Woodson’s work before, you’ll know she is an author able to tackle extremely tough subjects with both poise and aplomb. Her autobiographical work of narrative poetry, BROWN GIRL DREAMING, is no exception. Jacqueline is able to combine history, genealogical anecdotes and emotionally evoking verse in what may well be one of the best books of the year. I’m not surprised at all that it’s on the 2014 National Book Award Long List.

BROWN GIRL DREAMING focuses on Jacqueline Woodson’s memories of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, moving from Ohio where she was born to South Carolina with her maternal grandparents and then back north to New York. In the backdrop of her family life lies the outlasting effects of the Jim Crow laws --- her family still sits toward the back of the bus in the South --- and the growing civil rights movement.

"[Woodson] doesn’t need paragraphs to share her life with us; she’s capable of doing it in just lines."

What follows is a very intimate and innocent exploration of Jacqueline’s life from her discovery of writing to the loss of relatives to the changing landscape of civil rights and her desire to be a part of it in some way.  I love the short and succinct poetry that treats us to quick glimpses of her family --- her sister reading under the table with a bowl of peanuts, her brother bent over his chemistry set, her grandfather taking them for lemon chiffon ice cream. By the end of this book, we feel as if we grew up alongside her, so entwined in the narrative that we know these characters as well as we know our narrator. Her descriptions are gripping and heartfelt and so perfectly placed. She doesn’t need paragraphs to do share her life with us; she’s capable of doing it in just lines. Some poems are as few as three words, some take up three pages.

What works too is that you can see threads of her life so clearly. The first time she realizes she wants to be a writer, she feels the power of creating words on a page. Then when she grows up, stories and songs come to her as if she grabbed them out of the air. On a trip upstate to visit her uncle in prison, her sister tells her that the song she just made up is “too good” to have been from her. She must have heard it somewhere. And the thread ends at the final few pages, when she writes a poem for her class and her teacher calls her up to read it, calling her a writer. We feel through the poem how proud she is of this title, how happy she is to be recognized, and we are proud of her too. She is extremely successful, like I mentioned before, in sharing these emotions with us.

I think that this is a book that must be read in classrooms from middle school to high school. I think this is a book that must be read on the subway and at home curled up with a blanket. It’s extremely true and telling. Its expansive verse allows for the understanding of history, especially of civil rights, through the eyes of a young child. Her observations are genuine and important. I feel like these subjects, fortunately and unfortunately, may always be relevant. The book is so beautiful that it deserves recognition and to be read by many. I highly recommend carving out some time to be lulled by the verse and follow Jacqueline’s story. It’s a wonderful one, full of life, love and wonder. I hope you enjoy it as I did.

Reviewed by Brianna Robinson on October 7, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson