brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, 328 pp, RL 4

Winner of the National Book Award, the Newbery Honor Medal (her third) and the Coretta Scott King Award for Authors, brown girl dreaming is worth every medal and more. Like the Newbery Medal winner this year, Kwame Alexander's Crossover, Woodson's book is a verse novel - two verse novels wining ALA awards in the same year! While Jacqueline Woodson's memoir in verse, brown girl dreaming, is definitely about growing up African American during a time of unrest and change in the segregated South and later New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, more than anything, I feel like this amazing novel is about the experience of being a child and figuring out the world around you and about how a writer is born. Woodson's poetry glows with vivid images, humor and a love of language and her writing conveys masterfully the experience of her growing discovery of her love for writing.

Woodson breaks brown girl dreaming into five parts, beginning with a section titled, "i am born," and ending when she is about ten years old. Even before this, she includes a family tree, which I was very grateful for. I found myself poring over it before starting the novel, and referring back to it often, checking the birth (and death) dates and names of family members. Beginning with the day of her birth, Woodson sets the historical stage, writing Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges then narrows her perspective, telling the story of her father's family, filled with "doctors and lawyers and teachers / athletes and scholars and people in government," and roots that lead back to Thomas Woodson of Chillicothe, "said to be / the first son / of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings." Drawing in even closer, the stunning poem, "the ghosts of the nelsonville house," describing the big white house on the hill that his father grew up in in Ohio. She populates the house with her father, Jack, and his four siblings as children and you can almost hear the noise and taste the icebox cake they sneak. Turning her gaze to family photos of her grandparents, father, aunts and uncles on the walls, Woodson writes:

The children of Hope and Grace.

Look closely. There I am
in the furrow of Jack's brow,
in the slyness of Alicia's smile,
in the bend of Grace's hand . . .

There I am . . .


While reading brown girl dreaming I found myself flip-flopping between perspectives: that of a child experiencing her family - without insider adult knowledge - and that of the adult who can reflect upon the past with experience and knowledge. That's how powerful Woodson's writing here is, what a brilliant storyteller she is. My favorite poem from this first part of the book is, "other people's memories," in which Woodson's maternal grandmother, mother and father all tell different stories about why they know with certainty what (different) time of day Jacqueline entered the world at. Her time of birth not listed on her birth certificate, it got "lost again / amid other people's bad memory."

Throughout brown girl dreaming, Woodson intersperses ten numbered haikus, each titled, "how to listen," many of which, like "how to listen #1," are gems of insight into a writer's mind:

Somewhere in my brain
each laugh, tear and lullaby
becomes memory.

By the time Woodson is one year old, her mother has left her father and taken her and her older brother and sister to live with her parents in Greenville, S.C. Woodson's poems turn to describing life in the South with her hardworking grandparents. Poems reveal the deep love they had for Woodson and her siblings, who called their grandfather Gunnar, "Daddy." Trips to the candy lady's house, Saturday nights in the kitchen washing and ironing hair ribbons while their grandmother did their hair with Dixie Peach hair grease, visits to Kingdom Hall with her grandmother, who was a Jehovah's Witness, are brought to life with Woodson's words. Family members move away and some die. A move to New York City where a new baby brother awaits them shifts the story again. Writing from the perspective of her young self, there are many things that my adult mind wondered about, but realized a child might have been shielded from or would simply know nothing about. Woodson's poem, "caroline but we called her aunt kay, some memories," is a perfect example of the narrow ways in which a child can know an adult, remember an adult.Writing about school, her talented siblings, her struggles with reading, her best friend Maria, Woodson widens her scope. However, when she writes about discovering the joy she finds in writing, the poems become even richer and more meaningful, if possible. And, while she is a few years older than me and my familial experiences were very different, Woodson's writes of childhood truths, both concrete and abstract, that resonated with me. It filled me with glee to read, "the earth from far away," a poem about a Saturday morning television show I loved called The Big Blue Marble. The show visited children all over the world and was, as Woodson writes, "right in our living room! Telling us their stories." She ends this poem with, 

The world - my world! - like words. Once
there was only the letter J and my sister's hand
wrapped around mine, guiding me, promising me
infinity. The big blue marble
of world and words and people and places

Inside my head an

somewhere out there, too.

All of it, mine now if I just listen

and write it down.

Reaching the end of brown girl dreaming, I was stunned to realize that Woodson had covered only the first ten years of her life, and I was left wanting to know more. However, I was also left with images and experiences that I turn to over and over, beautiful, rich, textured poems that are like gifts to be opened more than once.

Source: Purchased Book and Audio Book


No comments: