Sunday, February 1, 2015

Review of Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir in verse, aimed at a middle grade or young adult audience. In it, Jacqueline Woodson tells the story of her own life, wrapped in the story of her family and the story of the struggle for civil rights in America.

I really liked this book, which is both a universal portrait of growing up (sibling rivalry, friendship drama) and a portrait of an African American girl growing up at a particular time with a particular set of hopes and aspirations. The memoir covers Woodson’s family life preceding her birth in the mid-1960s up until she is around eleven years old. There are themes about place and belonging (being from the north vs. being from the south); there are themes about protest and resistance; there are themes about finding one’s own skills and aptitudes; and there are themes about community and continuity.

I read a recent New York Times review in which the reviewer wonders why Woodson gives the book the title Brown Girl Dreaming instead of just Girl Dreaming. I found that the magic of this story involved Woodson discovering her own strength and identity as an African American girl. And the idea of finding herself as a person of color with a story worth telling is certainly the anchor of the memoir. In a small vignette about a trip to the library, she writes:

If someone had taken
that book out of my hand
said, You’re too old for this
I’d never have believed
that someone who looked like me
could be in the pages of the book
that someone like me
had a story

Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for this book, and there was quite a scandal (by bookish standards, anyway) when emcee Daniel Handler made a racist joke while announcing her award. The incident raised questions about the ongoing struggle surrounding diversity in publishing, and, perhaps, the ongoing difficulty we have talking about race meaningfully. Woodson wrote this elegant editorial in the New York Times following the award ceremony.

I was intrigued by the author’s decision to write the book in verse. I have only read two books in verse before: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, which won the Newbery Medal in 2013, and Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson, which combines poetry, prose, and primary source material. I enjoyed them both. But when I saw that Brown Girl Dreaming was written in verse, I wondered at first if kids would gravitate to the form, or if this would be one of those books that teachers love but kids ignore. Then, when Woodson mentioned finding a volume of Langston Hughes as a child, I realized that writing poetry about her life as an African American was intended to be part of a larger tradition. And while I thought Woodson's storytelling was masterful, I would love for my poet friends to weigh in and discuss whether Woodson’s poetry is good poetry.


Anonymous said...

I'll have to remember to put this one on my list. It sounds great. Also, there's a very good novel in verse by David Mason, called Ludlow, about the Ludlow Massacre--A true story about striking miners who were killed in their camp. E

jennifer said...

I remember you mentioning that one. And I just noticed that it's at the library! Thanks!