Friday, November 14, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming
Jacqueline Woodson
Penguin, 2014  320 pgs
Grades 5-8
Narrative Poetry

Woodson offers free verse, narrative poems tracing her childhood and all its complexities in this fictionalized autobiography.  Born in Columbus, Ohio, we experience Woodson's first memories, family background, and the turbulence of her parents marriage.  She and her mother and two older siblings move into their grandparent's house in South Carolina.  Jacqueline's mother leaves the children with her parents, traveling up to New York City to seek a fresh start and better opportunities.  The Woodson children thrive in South Carolina, treating their grandparents as their parents, and exploring their rural surroundings, all while under the shadow of Jim Crow.  Eventually mother has another baby, Grandfather develops emphysema, and the children move to New York to live with their mother.  Life in New York is opposite in every way to South Carolina, in physical space, diversity of the neighborhood, and the way leisure time is spent.  After Jacqueline's baby brother contracts lead poisoning, another South Carolina summer is spent, now through the lenses of a northern city girl.  Throughout it all the Woodson family stays true to their Jehovah Witness beliefs and we observe first hand the sacrifices, time commitment, and sense of community the faith involves.  Eventually, after much heartache and growth, Jacqueline discovers that she is a writer and embraces her own story, beliefs and desires, warts and all.

Jacqueline Woodson is know for her beautifully written and thoughtful books, generally reflecting the African American experience.  I have read many of her books and even used a few in book discussion groups, (Hush being my favorite).  Brown Girl Dreaming is her best offering yet.  The poems convey a story, yet are so beautifully written that they could stand on their own individually in a separate collection.  This is a big publishing year for Civil Rights books and Brown Girl Dreaming is a wonderful contribution to the topic.  We experience the struggles of growing up as an African American girl both in the south and the north during a time when change was happening.  I am the same age as Jacqueline and grew up during the same time and couldn't help comparing her experience to mine.  Our experiences where so different, yet there were fundamental similarities about family and growing up that made me identify with her and put me in the story.  I think that this is an important book for kids to read.  I'm not sure all kids will "get it".  The poetry may put readers off.  I have used Out of the Dust with book groups and, although its one of my favorite books, they don't like it because of the  poetic format.  That said, we should not give up exposing children to high quality literature and, thank goodness, publishers are still willing to publish it.  Wimpy Kid has a place and is valuable in its own right, but once in a while it wouldn't kill a child to read something that makes them think and work a little bit.  I fell into the life of young Jacquline Woodson and did not want the book to end. I would highly recommend this book to thoughtful children who like their reading to contain a little substance and to adults who would like a quick meaningful read.

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