Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

I don't usually like memoirs or books written in verse, but I loved Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. Born in 1963, Jacqueline grew up in both the north and the south. Her childhood memories are captured in free-verse poems. The reading experience was like flipping through a family scrapbook with warm nostalgia tempered by sorrow.

An excerpt from "the blanket"
So the first time my mother goes to New York City
we don't know to be sad, the weight
of our grandparents' love like a blanket
with us beneath it,
safe and warm.
During hard times, Jacqueline and her siblings lived with their working class grandparents in South Carolina. Civil rights legislation had repealed the Jim Crow laws, however racial prejudice lingered.

In downtown Greenville,
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn't use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out.
Young Jacqueline grew up with mixed messages. Her grandmother tells her to sit at the back of the bus to avoid trouble, but her mother encourages Jacqueline to be proud of who she is. In "the right way to speak" her mother whips her brother for saying "ain't."
You are from the North, our mother says.
You know the right way to speak. 
This lesson about the importance of language was not lost on the children. However, Jacqueline was a mediocre student. She was a disappointment to teachers who knew her brilliant older sister. Still, even as a child, Jacqueline wanted to be writer. Her poem "composition notebook" is an ode to her dream in the face of sibling rivalry:
And why does she need a notebook? She can't even write!
For days and days, I could only sniff the pages,
hold the notebook close
listen to the sound the papers made.
Some poems were three lines and others were three pages, but all were easy to read. Although Brown Girl Dreaming is being marketed for readers aged ten and up, a younger reader would need explanation about the historical context. An adult would appreciate the literary references to Langston Hughes and to Robert Frost, whose styles influence Jacqueline's poetry. It's a book with wide appeal to readers of all ages.

Although I wouldn't usually recommend this strategy, you should start this book at the end. The author's note places her work in context, and there are charming photos of Jacqueline and her extended family. As I met the characters, I enjoyed flipping back to the photos. The cover is gorgeous too.

Brown Girl Dreaming is on the short list for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, and many expect it to win that and the Newbury Award. It would make an excellent addition to the middle school/junior high classroom or library. My one disappointment was that the memoir didn't follow the future MG/YA author beyond elementary school. I'm waiting for the sequel.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought the beautiful hardcover edition at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine without compensation. Photo is of my backyard on Sunday after our first snowfall of the season. Happy Snowvember!

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@Barrie Summy


Stacy Nyikos said...

I've been wondering about this one. Thanks for reviewing! I have to jump over my own shadow time and time again to read novels in verse. I inevitably end up liking them, Orchard, for instance, but I have to force myself to read them. What is that about?

Linda McLaughlin said...

This sounds like a wonderful book, Sarah. I'd love to read it and I'll add it to the wish list for my great nephew.

Kelly H-Y said...

Just read a children's picture book by this same author ... looking forward to reading this one as well. Thank you for the wonderful review, as always. And ... gorgeous pic!

Barrie said...

I'm planning to buy this for my daughter for Christmas. As I haven't yet read it, I was glad you reviewed it. I don't easily gravitate toward books in verse. (I love the image of Stacy jumping on her shadow!). Thanks for reviewing, Sarah. And thanks for the fall photo. I miss that!

pattinase (abbott) said...

This sounds wonderful. Thanks for reviewing it.

Rose said...

I usually don't like books written in verse either, nor do I like books written as a series of letters. But I do love poetry, and the excerpts here are so moving--perhaps I could read this in short spurts over time.

I'm not surprised you've had a snowfall! Hope it has all melted away by now.

A Cuban In London said...

It is a lovely review. What I liked the best about it and I guess the reason why I would consider buying the book is that it seems to me Jacqueline follows no conveitonal rules. I also agree with your comment on the NYT position on the book title. Can we just let literature be what it is, literature?

Greetings from London.

Amanda Summer said...

What a lovely, unusual and necessary voice to be heard from.

Snow already?!

Cynthia Pittmann said...

It sounds as if it's a beautiful book that's sensitively written. I appreciated your lovely review, Sarah.

cosmos said...

I'd like to read this book. I am too way over 10 and up,however, reading whatever book in English is challenging without translation. I'll try anyway.
Your photo makes me shivering with cold. Now autumn color is getting beautiful around here.

troutbirder said...

How neat! I'm already thinking Christmas gift for my Ethiopian born granddaughter...:)

Liviania said...

I've heard so many good things about this book. I should try it, even though I'm not a memoir fan either.

Sarah Laurence said...

Stacy, Linda, Patti, Rose, Liviania, thanks, I enjoyed your book reviews too.

Barrie, thanks for hosting the book review club!

Kelly and Cynthia, thanks, nice to see you back online!

ACIL and troutbirder, I’d love to hear your family’s reaction to this book.

Amanda, Rose, and Cosmos, the snow melted within a few days. It’s been an otherwise unseasonably warm November. No complaints other than the fear of climate change!

Cosmos, I admire you for tackling literature in your second language. I think it would be just your speed since it is pretty easy to understand for poetry but still sophisticated enough for adults. It’s written for children but not childlike.

Sarah Laurence said...

Update: Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Award for Juvenile Literature.