Published by Nancy Paulsen Books on August 28, 2014
Genres: Memoir, MG Historical
Jacqueline Woodson, one of today's finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.
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.
Diversity Rating: 4 – This Is Our World
Racial-Ethnic: 5 (her identity as a black girl in both the North and the South is at the center of everything)
QUILTBAG: 3 (doesn’t come up in the book at all, but Woodson is a lesbian)
Intersectionality: 5 (Woodson’s black girlhood is basically what the book is about)
Though I pay attention to which middle grade and young adult books are winning awards just like any other more-bookish-than-average person, but I don’t put much stock in the awards. After all, John Green’s books have won quite a few prestigious awards and I don’t think his books are worth the discarded gum I pull off my shoes. Add in the fact I’m simply not a fan of the literary fare that usually wins awards and it’s no wonder I haven’t read Brown Girl Dreaming until now. THAT WAS A BAD CHOICE. I SHOULD HAVE READ IT SOONER.
Though I ended up reading the book all in one day, Woodson’s language as she describes her childhood growing up in South Carolina and New York is so gorgeous I needed to put it down repeatedly. I could quote almost every single line of the book here, it’s so beautiful! That much lovely language in one place makes me a bit envious as a wannabe writer and overloads my brain with how many layers there are to it.
Every single person who lived through segregation and discrimination like Woodson did could write their own book about it and I still don’t think we’d have enough testimonies to make the future understand what happened, why it happened, and how it affected a generation. Access to personal accounts like these remain powerful and highly necessary as time marches on and greater powers than the common people decide what is and isn’t recorded in the history books. Even if we know what happened, it means so much more to have someone’s personal experience recorded to put the reader in their position.
While Woodson struggles with being a little black girl in the 1960s and early 1970s, she faces struggles with her religion (her grandmother raised her and her siblings as Jehovah’s Witnesses) and with her learning disability too. Neither could stop her from falling in love with reading stories and telling stories. Each time she lied to her family as little kids often do, it felt like she was telling a story, she says at one point. That love of reading and stories will almost certainly resonate with readers who choose to read the book, but it has the potential to inspire reluctant readers as well.
As a kid, I read my history textbooks for fun both during and out of school. While we studied a period of history I found uninteresting, like the 1910s, I’d sneakily turn the pages in my book to a period of greater interest to me: modern history. Many years later, I recognize that even the history books I thought were so enlightening are heavily filtered, written by the victors, and exclude the voices of the marginalized more often than now. I never found a story like Woodson’s in my history textbooks and I doubt children today will, but this is the kind of book you pair with lessons on the civil rights movement. That way, children know the events and the human experience.
If you haven’t already read Brown Girl Dreaming, you should. If possible, get a copy to keep in your personal library.With an incoming president supported by neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other people who think the times Woodson grew up in were the Good Old Days thanks to segregation, we can’t let visceral personal stories like hers be lost. This generation needs Brown Girl Dreaming so they won’t grow up ignorant of what was going on just fifty or sixty years ago. The generation after them and every generation after them will need it too.
Maybe it was a bad idea to let this be my first read of 2017. Now my standards as a reader are going to be higher for the rest of the year.