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

Review: Caminar


Title: Caminar
Author: Skila Brown
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Genre: Historical
Format: Poetry
Pages: 208 pages
Availability: On Shelves Now
Review Copy: Hard Copy from Publisher

Summary: Carlos knows that when the soldiers arrive with warnings about the Communist rebels, it is time to be a man and defend the village, keep everyone safe. But Mama tells him not yet — he’s still her quiet moonfaced boy. The soldiers laugh at the villagers, and before they move on, a neighbor is found dangling from a tree, a sign on his neck:Communist. Mama tells Carlos to run and hide, then try to find her. . . . Numb and alone, he must join a band of guerillas as they trek to the top of the mountain where Carlos’s abuela lives. Will he be in time, and brave enough, to warn them about the soldiers? What will he do then? A novel in verse inspired by actual events during Guatemala’s civil war, Caminar is the moving story of a boy who loses nearly everything before discovering who he really is.

Review: It’s probably not news to you, but April was poetry month. Being a teacher, that means I have been reading a large amount of poetry lately. I also posted a list of novels in verse last month which got me wondering why they appeal to me so much. I’ve heard many readers ask why books are in that format and make comments about how they sometimes don’t even seem like poetry or that they think readers may not understand novels in verse. I am not sure why they work or don’t work for other people, but I have an idea of why they work for me. When I read a novel in verse like Caminar, all of the white space focuses my attention even more closely on the words – especially when they are as powerful as those written by Skila Brown. In addition, the variety of cadences and frequent pauses allow for a lot more thinking on my part. There are many, many breaks in the writing that make time for this reader’s responses. In Caminar the pauses felt natural even though I am certain they are very deliberate.

The topic of the Guatemalan civil war is grim, and Skila Brown has given the conflict a face. Carlos is a young boy who plays soccer and carries marbles in his pockets, though he is yearning to be a man. He is still willing to obey his mother, but is beginning to question that. He wonders if following her orders is keeping him from becoming a man. In the midst of his questioning, the soldiers and rebels step into his life and his world is shattered. At this point, I will just go ahead and admit that I did not make it through the book without tears. The dedication hints at what is to come, “In memory of the more than 200,000 people who were killed or disappeared in Guatemala between 1960 and 1996. May they always be remembered.”

Brown weaves the story through many individual poems. She plays with the arrangement of words on the page and most are visually very distinct from each other. Some of the poems are concrete showing the shape of what they describe. A few bounce back and forth between two columns and could even benefit from being read aloud by two people. One is read down the page and then is inverted to be read again providing a different perspective. I really enjoyed experiencing the variety of forms and even though the shapes changed greatly, the voice remained consistent and clear.

Carlos is young, but is being forced to grow up quickly. Caminar is a coming of age novel which shifts it into the young adult category a little though it is often labeled as a middle grade book. I think it is on the borderline. Brown tackles the topic of war in a way that is accessible and appropriate for younger children, yet is complex enough to work with older readers too.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the concept of the nahuales or animal spirit protectors. I loved the poems that dealt with that. Early on, Carlos scoffs a bit at the idea, but his beliefs shift over time. It led me to remember the book How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle as it also features the idea of animals as protectors. I think that the two books have many similarities. In both, a group of people are being targeted and a young boy must face fears in an attempt to help loved ones. They would likely be good books to read together.

Recommendation: Buy it now particularly if poetry appeals to you. If you typically avoid novels in verse, I would still say grab this one. I was unfamiliar with this history and truly appreciated the story. Above all though, poetry is about word choice and placement and Skila Brown chose well.


Interview with Skila Brown

Review: How I Discovered Poetry


Title: How I Discovered Poetry
Author: Marilyn Nelson
Publisher: Dial
Pages: 103
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On Shelves Now

Summary: A powerful and thought-provoking Civil Rights era memoir from one of America’s most celebrated poets.

Looking back on her childhood in the 1950s, Newbery Honor winner and National Book Award finalist Marilyn Nelson tells the story of her development as an artist and young woman through fifty eye-opening poems. Readers are given an intimate portrait of her growing self-awareness and artistic inspiration along with a larger view of the world around her: racial tensions, the Cold War era, and the first stirrings of the feminist movement.

A first-person account of African-American history, this is a book to study, discuss, and treasure. — Cover image and summary via IndieBound

Review: Reading How I Discovered Poetry is like looking through a photo album with a loved one while they share memories. Here a laugh, there a tear, sometimes even an admission of mischievousness. Marilyn Nelson has crafted fifty sonnets that begin with the simplicity of a pre-schooler and progress to the complexity of the early teen years. Each sonnet is a snapshot of family life, but many also give glimpses of the cultural changes that were occurring in the wider world.

What I loved was the voice that truly seemed to mature. I could just see a young child asking,

“Why did Lot have to take his wife and flea
from the bad city like the angel said?”

She is truly puzzled about that flea as she sits there in church. She has many such misunderstandings as she grows up. Over time, they become less about vocabulary issues and more about the deeper questioning she is doing concerning the world and her place in it. As she learns, grows and experiences life, the sonnets show her increasing sense of self. She begins to find her voice – the voice of a poet.

There are so many ways that readers can connect to this book. Nelson throws the door open so we can see into the life of a military family on the move. There are sibling and family interactions that I know I could sympathize with as an older sister. She includes civil rights issues and instances of prejudice. With so many brief moments of time highlighted, there are many opportunities for readers to see echoes of their own life.

As a military family, they move all over the country. In most of the places they are stationed, they are the first or only Negro family. This makes for a lot of what she calls “First Negro” moments. Some of the experiences are positive – like her mother being the first Negro teacher of the all white class on base. Some are negative like the racial name calling that happens. In the midst of her personal stories, she also embeds stories from the Civil Rights movement including people like Emmett Till and Rosa Parks.

Humor is present here along with the serious matters. I enjoyed the poem “Fieldwork” where Daddy says, “Let’s pretend we’re researching an unknown civilian Caucasian tribe,” when they move to New Hampshire. The poet goes on to explain the eating habits and vocabulary of the locals.

If you know any of Marilyn Nelson’s previous work, you won’t be surprised to find out that there is also beauty among the poems. There is beauty that she describes, but there is also simple beauty in her words. If you want a taste, be sure to read the poems from the book that are linked below. The NPR interview is excellent. It’s about seven minutes long and features a reading of the title poem at the end.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you are a poetry lover. Even if you don’t typically read poetry, this is a great book for history buffs or those who enjoy memoirs. Besides, reading How I Discovered Poetry would be a perfect way to celebrate Poetry Month.

NPR Interview
Sample poem posted on GottaBook blog “Telling Time
Excerpt (five poems including the title poem)


Novels in Verse

April is one of my favorite months because it finally starts to look like spring where I live and more importantly – it’s poetry month. If you’re interested in grabbing up some poetry for April, we had a post with suggestions back in October. In that post I included novels in verse, poetry collections and novels that focused on poetry in any way. Today I’d like to share a more thorough list of novels in verse. I’ve read some of them, but the others are on my list of books to be read. If you’ve read some of the titles, let us know what you thought of them. If you know of any others to add to list, please tell us in the comments.


Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist by Margarita Engle
Harcourt Children’s Books

Summary: Newbery Honor-winner Margarita Engle tells the story of Cuban folk hero, abolitionist, and women’s rights pioneer Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda in this powerful new YA historical novel in verse.



Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
Lee & Low Books

Summary: When Lupita discovers Mami has been diagnosed with cancer, she is terrified by the possibility of losing her mother, the anchor of their close-knit Mexican American family.

In the midst of juggling high school classes, finding her voice as an actress, and dealing with friends who don’t always understand, Lupita desperately wants to support her mother by doing anything she can to help. While Papi is preoccupied with caring for Mami, Lupita takes charge of her seven younger siblings. Struggling in her new roles and overwhelmed by change, Lupita escapes the chaos of home by writing in the shade of a mesquite tree, seeking refuge in the healing power of words.

Told in evocative free verse, Lupita’s journey is both heart-wrenching and hopeful. Under the Mesquite is an empowering story about the testing of family bonds, the strength of a teenage girl navigating pain and hardship, and the kind of love that cannot be uprooted.

The Good Braider by Terry Farish
Marshall Cavendish

In spare free verse laced with unforgettable images, Viola’s strikingly original voice sings out the story of her family s journey from war-torn Sudan, to Cairo, and finally to Portland, Maine. Here, in the sometimes too close embrace of the local Southern Sudanese Community, she dreams of South Sudan while she tries to navigate the strange world of America a world where a girl can wear a short skirt, get a tattoo or even date a boy; a world that puts her into sharp conflict with her traditional mother who, like Viola, is struggling to braid together the strands of a displaced life.

Terry Farish s haunting novel is not only a riveting story of escape and survival, but the universal tale of a young immigrant s struggle to build a life on the cusp of two cultures.



The Language Inside by Holly Thompson
Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Summary: A nuanced novel in verse that explores identity in a multicultural world.

Emma Karas was raised in Japan; it’s the country she calls home. But when her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, Emma’s family moves to a town outside Lowell, Massachusetts, to stay with Emma’s grandmother while her mom undergoes treatment.

Emma feels out of place in the United States.She begins to have migraines, and longs to be back in Japan. At her grandmother’s urging, she volunteers in a long-term care center to help Zena, a patient with locked-in syndrome, write down her poems. There, Emma meets Samnang, another volunteer, who assists elderly Cambodian refugees. Weekly visits to the care center, Zena’s poems, dance, and noodle soup bring Emma and Samnang closer, until Emma must make a painful choice: stay in Massachusetts, or return home early to Japan.


Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck by Margarita Engle
Henry Holt and Co.

Summary: Quebrado has been traded from pirate ship to ship in the Caribbean Sea for as long as he can remember. The sailors he toils under call him el quebrado—half islander, half outsider, a broken one. Now the pirate captain Bernardino de Talavera uses Quebrado as a translator to help navigate the worlds and words between his mother’s Taíno Indian language and his father’s Spanish.

But when a hurricane sinks the ship and most of its crew, it is Quebrado who escapes to safety. He learns how to live on land again, among people who treat him well. And it is he who must decide the fate of his former captors.

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff
Henry Holt & Co.

Summary: Viginia Euwer Wolff’s groundbreaking novel, written in free verse, tells the story of fourteen-year-old LaVaughn, who is determined to go to college–she just needs the money to get there.

When she answers a babysitting ad, LaVaughn meets Jolly, a seventeen-year-old single mother with two kids by different fathers. As she helps Jolly make lemonade out of the lemons her life has given her, LaVaughn learns some lessons outside the classroom.

The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle
Henry Holt & Co.

Summary:The freedom to roam is something that women and girls in Cuba do not have. Yet when Fredrika Bremer visits from Sweden in 1851 to learn about the people of this magical island, she is accompanied by Cecilia, a young slave who longs for her lost home in Africa. Soon Elena, the wealthy daughter of the house, sneaks out to join them. As the three women explore the lush countryside, they form a bond that breaks the barriers of language and culture.

In this quietly powerful new book, award-winning poet Margarita Engle paints a portrait of early women’s rights pioneer Fredrika Bremer and the journey to Cuba that transformed her life.

dark sons
Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes
Jump at the Sun

Summary: Sam can’t believe it when his father leaves the family to marry another woman–and a white woman, at that. The betrayal cuts deep–Sam had been so close to his dad, he idolized him. Now who can he turn to, who can he trust? Even God seems to have ditched him.

Ishmael is his father’s first son, the heir, his favorite. But when his father is visited by mysterious strangers who claim that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, will finally give birth to a legitimate son, Ishmael is worried. And when baby Isaac arrives, Ishmael becomes more isolated from his father. Could Abraham’s God, who had spoken to Ishmael’s mother, to whom he has made countless sacrifices, now betray him in favor of this new son?


A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman
Nancy Paulsen Books

Summary: Padma Venkatraman’s inspiring story of a young girl’s struggle to regain her passion and find a new peace is told lyrically through verse that captures the beauty and mystery of India and the ancient bharatanatyam dance form. This is a stunning novel about spiritual awakening, the power of art, and above all, the courage and resilience of the human spirit.

Veda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance—so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling. But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her. (pub date May 1, 2014)


The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle
Henry Holt & Co.

Summary: Born into the household of a wealthy slave owner in Cuba in 1797, Juan Francisco Manzano spent his early years by the side of a woman who made him call her Mama, even though he had a mama of his own. Denied an education, young Juan still showed an exceptional talent for poetry. His verses reflect the beauty of his world, but they also expose its hideous cruelty.

Powerful, haunting poems and breathtaking illustrations create a portrait of a life in which even the pain of slavery could not extinguish the capacity for hope.

jimmi Jimi & Me by Jaime Adoff
Jump at the Sun

Summary: After his father is murdered, Keith and his mother try desperately to pick up the pieces of their lives. But his father s death has left them devastated-both emotionally and financially. Forced to leave Brooklyn and move in with his aunt, Keith urgently clings to every last reminder of his dad, discovering comfort in his own music and that of the late legend-and his father s idol-Jimi Hendrix. In Jimi s music, Keith finds solace, and brief moments of reprieve from his chaotic new life. But just as he begins to get a handle on his father s death, he discovers the secrets of his father s life–secrets that threaten to tear apart what s left of his fragile family.

A Girl Named Mister by Nikki Grimes

Summary: Mary Rudine, called Mister by almost everyone, has attended church and sung in the choir for as long as she can remember. But then she meets Trey. His long lashes and smooth words make her question what she knows is right, and one mistake leaves her hiding a growing secret.

Another Mary is preparing for her upcoming wedding and has done everything according to Jewish law. So when an angel appears one night and tells her that she—a virgin—will give birth, Mary can’t help but feel confused, and soon finds herself struggling with the greatest blessing the world will ever know.

Feeling abandoned, Mister is drawn to Mary’s story, and together both young women discover the depth of God’s love and the mysteries of his divine plan. — Cover images and summaries via Goodreads

New Releases

We found three diverse books that are being released this week. The fun thing is that one is historical, one is contemporary, and one is a dystopian. Here they are in chronological order.

silver Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal by Margarita Engle
HMH Books for Young Readers

Summary: One hundred years ago, the world celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, which connected the world’s two largest oceans and signaled America’s emergence as a global superpower. It was a miracle, this path of water where a mountain had stood—and creating a miracle is no easy thing. Thousands lost their lives, and those who survived worked under the harshest conditions for only a few silver coins a day.

From the young “silver people” whose back-breaking labor built the Canal to the denizens of the endangered rainforest itself, this is the story of one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, as only Newbery Honor-winning author Margarita Engle could tell it. – Cover image and summary via Goodreads


drama Drama Queens in the House by Julie Williams

Roaring Brook Press

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Jessie Jasper Lewis doesn’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t surrounded by method actors, bright spotlights, and feather boas. Her parents started the Jumble Players Theater together, and theater is the glue that holds her crazy family together. But when she discovers that her father’s cheating on her mother with a man, Jessie feels like her world is toppling over. And on top of everything else, she has to deal with a delusional aunt who is predicting the end of the world. Jessie certainly doesn’t feel ready to be center stage in the production that is her family. But where does she belong in all of this chaos? — Cover image and summary via Goodreads


wanderers Wanderers (Wasteland, #2) by Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan


Summary: The former citizens of Prin are running out of time. The Source has been destroyed, so food is scarcer than ever. Tensions are rising…and then an earthquake hits.

So Esther and Caleb hit the road, leading a ragtag caravan. Their destination? A mythical city where they hope to find food and shelter – not to mention a way to make it past age nineteen.

On the way, alliances and romances blossom and fracture. Esther must rally to take charge with the help of a blind guide, Aras. He seems unbelievably cruel, but not everything is as it seems in the Wasteland.…

In this sequel to Wasteland, the stakes are even higher for Esther, Caleb, and the rest of their clan. They’re pinning all their hopes on the road…but what if it’s the most dangerous place of all? – Cover image and summary via Goodreads

Favorite Diverse YA from 2013

Narrowing down my favorites for the year was pretty tough. There are so many that I don’t want to leave out. I finally narrowed it down though.




Proxy by Alex London was a fast paced novel that kept me flipping the pages both times I read it. And yes, I did read it twice already. I reviewed it here



Marie Lu’s Legend series got even more amazing with Prodigy. June and Day are compelling characters and I can’t wait to see what happens next.



Juliette from Unravel Me is another character that fascinates me. Tehereh Mafi is weaving a tale that has completely sucked me in and I’m excited for the next installment.

Contemporary Books

Rogue author Lyn Miller-Lachmann visited out blog earlier this year and shared a bit about her writing. After learning about the book, I knew I wanted to read it. This is on the younger side of YA with the main character in middle school. I loved that readers see into the world of a person with Asperger’s syndrome, but Kiara is much more than that. She is an X-Men enthusiast, a loyal friend, a movie maker and much more. Kiara is a character that I wished I could meet in person.


In Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Piddy Sanchez is bullied. This is a gritty book that tugged at my heart. Fortunately, Piddy has some amazing people in her life. This book brought me to tears, but also brought laughter and smiles. Author Meg Medina was kind enough to grant us an interview and Jessica also reviewed Yaqui on Rich in Color back in May.



eleanor and parkEleanor and Park takes place in the 80s so those headphones are leading to a Walkman not an iPod, thus the historical label. It also earns a romance label. The relationship between Eleanor and Park was simply sweet in contrast to some of the rather horrible things in Eleanor’s life.

If I ever get out of here



If I Ever Get Out of Here was another fabulous book set in the past – specifically the 70s. I reviewed it on my personal blog here, and we also held a group discussion (with spoilers) earlier this month. Gansworth manages to handle some serious issues like bullying and poverty with a nice balance of humor. Lewis, the main character, is a teenager from the Tuscarora Indian reservation and he is attending a mostly white high school. Watching as Lewis navigates the social life of that school is both humorous and heart-breaking. 

Poetry – Historical



The Lightning Dreamer is based on the life of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (1814-1873). She was a feminist and abolitionist. Margarita Engle used this novel-in-verse to express some of Avellaneda’s ideas.

Here is a sample:
Beyond these convent gates, books
are locked away
and men
the keys.


Graphic Novels – Historical

Screen shot 2013-12-17 at 9.39.08 PMBoxers and Saints is actually two books, but they should be read together. They are both telling the same story during the Boxer Rebellion in China, but from two different perspectives. The first time I read them, I was impressed, but on a second read through, they were even better. I reviewed them here. They are a set of books that should not be missed even if graphic novels are not something you typically read.



Since You Asked was a bunch of fun. I reviewed it here. In it, Holly Kim writes a column in her high school newspaper. She is a bit snarky and has the goal of shaking things up around school. I loved her interactions with her mother and she also has a great group of friends. This one is sure to have you laughing.

Have you read any fantastic books that I might have missed? What were some of your favorites this year? Please share in the comments.