Review: Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl DreamingTitle: Brown Girl Dreaming
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Genre: Historical, Poetry
Pages: 336
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: 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.

Review: Brown Girl Dreaming gives us a glimpse into the childhood of Jacqueline Woodson and shows us her writing journey. She begins with family stories of her birth. The mix of stories is part of the magic of this book. She acknowledges that people’s memories and stories aren’t necessarily fact, but they are still their stories. There’s a complexity to the many stories that we are told and that we tell ourselves. There’s what happened, what we remember, what we wish happened, and what we reframe with or without our knowledge. Woodson’s first poem ends with a focus on story:

I am born in Ohio but
the stories of South Carolina already run
like rivers through my veins.

Story is a ribbon running through the book as she tells the stories from family members and of how she herself breathes stories. In her author’s note she explains that this book is “my past, my people, my memories, my story.” Most readers will be tumbled into their own memories along the way.

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

I really appreciated her poem “grown folks’ stories” because it tells of something that I did as a child. When the grown folks were talking, she and her siblings would sit quietly on the stairs to listen knowing that they could hear all of the good gossip. She seemed to drink up the stories, then retell them to her siblings adding her own twists.

Later, when her brother is on stage singing and they realize that he has real talent, she thinks that maybe there is something inside all of us, “A small gift from the universe waiting to be discovered.” Throughout the book, Woodson lets us see the young girl searching to find her special something. We can see her grow as a person and as writer from that very first letter J she puts on the page for her name to that moment when she finds her voice.

Along with her journey as a writer, she also shares stories that reflect the culture around her as she experiences life in the north and the south. She framed her birth with the people and events of those times including Martin Luther King Jr. planning his march on Washington, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, James Baldwin and Ruby Bridges. She also includes more personal stories like their shopping trips in downtown Greenville. Segregation is over there, but that doesn’t mean things are equal. In some stores or restaurants they may be followed around because they might steal or be treated poorly because of their color. However, the fabric store is an exception because the white woman there knows her grandmother.

At the fabric store, we are not Colored
or Negro. We are not thieves or shameful
or something to be hidden away.
At the fabric store, we’re just people.

Recommendation: Buy it now especially if you love verse novels, memoirs, or history. If you read and enjoyed How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson (reviewed earlier this year), you will definitely want to get this one soon. This is a book that has sometimes been labeled young adult, but more often middle grade. I think that’s because the writing is accessible for younger readers. The ideas and content are truly ageless and will be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

— Cover image and summary via Goodreads

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