Published by Penguin on August 28th 2014
Genres: Autobiography, Literary, Middle Grade, Prejudice & Racism, Social Issues, Women
National Book Award Winner 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. Praise for Jacqueline Woodson: Ms. Woodson writes with a sure understanding of the thoughts of young people, offering a poetic, eloquent narrative that is not simply a story . . . but a mature exploration of grown-up issues and self-discovery.” —The New York Times Book Review
Illuminations of Spirituality in Brown Girl Dreaming
Not only does this autobiography in verse deal with issues of family relationships, dreams, and social justice, the story also highlights the topic of religion. For example, whenever Jacqueline stays with her grandparents in South Carolina, she is taught the ways of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and she takes classes, attend church, and goes door to door. In this way, the author’s childhood religious formation figures in as an important dimension of the story.
What I really appreciated was the way the author came to some resolution about this faith through the closing “chapters.” You definitely finish the book knowing more about how Woodson came to terms with her childhood faith. I think the closing “poems” of the book are some of its strongest—I was truly impressed with the way she wrapped everything up. I was sad to see the book end and sad to say goodbye to the characters.
I believe that honoring our heritage and appreciating the sacrifices our family members have made for us can be a spiritual practice, in a way. Brown Girl Dreaming definitely reflects this aspect, and I found myself returning to the family tree at the beginning of the book again and again. I wanted to look up particular family members and trace the year they were born, and the year they died (if they weren’t still living). In this way, I felt a closeness to the story—the family tree invited me into the living room of Woodson’s life, and gave me a chair to sit in.
I felt like I knew Woodson’s grandfather and grandmother in South Carolina. I could hear the squeak swing from the backyard and smell her grandmother’s cornbread baking in the oven. This story was filled with sensory detail that put me right in the middle of the action.
To sum up: Brown Girl Dreaming reflects some aspects of spirituality in a sensitive and moving way. Woodson highlights one particular faith in her own life, but not at the expense of shutting out every other kind of faith.
Who Should Read This Book:
This is a Newbery Honor book for 2014—the ALA awards were announced just last month, and the Newbery is an award to take note of. I honestly thought this had a chance at the Newbery and I was right—for it received an honor. That being said, I think any and all readers should sit down with this beautiful novel in verse. It won’t take you as long to read a middle grade novel in verse as it would one in narrative form, but you may find yourself stopping to soak in the beautiful imagery and rhythm of these poems. You may find yourself reading certain pages aloud—and that’s a good thing.
If you’ve ever had a dream that seemed impossible, read this book. It’s a lovely testament to how someone who struggled with reading became a beautiful and world-changing writer.
The Final Illumination:
I LOVE novels in verse! When I taught Middle School English, my 7th graders read Crossing Stones by Helen Frost, and did we ever have fun with that book in the classroom! Poetry is also one of my favorite genres to read and write—so Middle Grade novels in verse (which are becoming more and more prevalent) are a group of texts I genuinely enjoy reading (if the story is something I’m interested in). In this case, I thought Woodson’s text was inspiring, lyrical, and moving. I know I’ll definitely return to it.
There are so many rich passages in the book, but I’ll leave you with just a few:
Then I let the stories live
Inside my head, again and again
Until the real world fades back
Into cricket lullabies
And my own dreams. (99)
If I wanted to
I could write anything. (156)