Award-wining author Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming may have been published for middle and young adult readers, but this is a book for every reader, young or old. As a matter of fact, I’m guessing that it will be the older reader who will hold it most dear.
Brown Girl Dreaming is the memoir of an African American girl, born in 1963 in Ohio. Woodson spent her youth in both the South and the North as the fight for civil rights was picking up steam, and her memories of growing up in those years and locations make this a quintessential book in the canon of Black American Literature. Just as the Underground Railroad, the burning of churches and the back seats of buses help to define the struggle for freedom throughout this memoir, so too, do the memories of a child searching for her place, not just within her family but within the world unfolding before her. These memories are as universal as they are intimately personal to the author. Almost every reader, regardless of ethnicity, will find themselves throughout Brown Girl Dreaming.
What makes Woodson’s memoir stand out as something even more special is that it is a poem, written in free verse. For those readers who have just said, “Whoa…..I don’t want to read poetry,” hold on, take a deep breath, and trust me that by the time you have finished the first page, you will have forgotten it is one long poem. Because it is a poem, and the lines are separated by a space-and-a- half and sometimes more, the reader has time to slow down and think over what has just been read. This time and space, allowing for our own memories, is a gift to the reader.
Throughout the book Woodson has a series of “How to Listen” poems. They are short and interspersed at perfect moments in her story, which is not just her story, but the story of her parents and their parents and cousins and neighbors and friends. “How to listen #1 Somewhere in my brain/each laugh, tear and lullaby/becomes memory.” When each of us recalls our stories, we draw from the exact same memories. Woodson, who had difficulty learning to read, had the compensating gift of being a great listener. And don’t we all remember secretly listening to “grown folks’ stories?” As Woodson writes: “Now is when we learn/everything/there is to know/”
Woodson’s youth is our youth. Her feelings about family are so often almost exactly what we remember, except. Except we did not have a beloved grandmother tell us not to sit in the front of the bus. Except we could eat in any restaurant our grandparent wanted to take us to. All of Woodson’s “excepts” (my quotes) should stop us in our tracks. How can we possibly be so alike and, at the same time, so different? Woodson’s memoir lets the reader imagine this question with a child’s heart and mind, and if we are honest with ourselves, the answer ought to make the civil rights movement a whole lot more personal.
But, Brown Girl Dreaming is more than understanding a young girl’s response to a revolution a long time coming, it is also a memoir of a young girl’s dream of being a writer: “Letters becoming, words gathering meaning,/ becoming/ thoughts outside my head/ becoming sentences.” The remembering, the telling, the writing and reading, it is all important: “I want to write this down, that the revolution is like/a merry-go-round, history always being made/somewhere. And maybe for a short time,/we’re a part of that history. And then the ride stops/and our turn is over.”
Woodson’s telling is a ride not to be missed. – Sunny Solomon
Also available by Jacqueline Woodson: Locomotion; After Tupac and D Foster; If You Come Softly; The Other Side; Each Kindness; Feathers; Miracle’s Boys; Show Way; Beneath a Meth Moon; I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This; Coming On Home Soon; From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun; This is the Rope:This is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration; Visiting Day; Behind You; Maizon at the Blue Hill; The House You Pass on the Way; Pecan Pie Baby; The Dear One; Hush; We Had a Picnic this Sunday Paast; Our Gracie Aunt; Between Madison and Palmetto; Autobiography of a Family Photo; Way Out of No Way; Lena; Marrtin Luther King, Jr., and His Birthday; Write Now!
After looking up the number of books written by this young author, I am humbled by her dream of being a writer and in awe of her steadfast determination to make that dream a reality. – S. Solomon