Jan 22, 2015

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline WoodsonBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir in free verse about Jacqueline Woodson’s childhood in 1960s and 1970s South Carolina and Brooklyn. It’s also about her family, their history, and how it ties to wider historical events; the ripple effects of the Civil Rights movement and how they shaped her life even before she fully made sense of them; and growing up as a black girl who loved stories in a world that didn’t always acknowledged she got to have one.

In one of my favourite poems, “Stevie and Me”, Woodson talks about going to the library and finding a picture book featuring a black child like herself. She writes movingly about the difference this made to her, and the following verses in particular capture one of the central themes of Brown Girl Dreaming:
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 who looked like me
had a story.
It’s lovely to think that the book where an adult Jacqueline Woodson now tells this story will surely have the same effect on other children.

Brown Girl Dreaming was included in a lot of Best of 2014 lists (including my own), and was a National Book Award winner in the US. Most of you will remember what happened at the Awards ceremony; while I don’t want to add to a pattern of focusing on Daniel Handler’s racist joke at the expense of the excellent book that should be the centre of attention, I do want to link to Woodson’s piece “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke”. She does a brilliant job of linking what happened to the themes of Brown Girl Dreaming, as well as of highlighting how damaging the assumption that the legacy of slavery and racism is all in the past really is:
This mission is what’s been passed down to me — to write stories that have been historically absent in this country’s body of literature, to create mirrors for the people who so rarely see themselves inside contemporary fiction, and windows for those who think we are no more than the stereotypes they’re so afraid of. To give young people — and all people — a sense of this country’s brilliant and brutal history, so that no one ever thinks they can walk onto a stage one evening and laugh at another’s too often painful past.
Brown Girl Dreaming was a great follow-up to some of my other favourite reads of 2014, namely March: Book One and Rita Williams-Garcia’s novels. I like how they all explore the real, everyday lives of people who go through periods of great social change, and also the circumstances in which someone might decide to take a stand or not. This is an idea I keep coming back to, I know, but I find stories that explore it illuminating. I’m very interested in reading about how people whose reality is inevitably shaped by disempowerment resist it while keeping corners of their lives that are simply about being a person. Oppression can be simultaneous all-encompassing and not the be-all and end-all of someone’s existence.

Likewise, I’m interested in compassionate accounts of people’s attempts to balance their safety and the safety of their loved ones with the urge to fight back in immediately visible ways. This is something Woodson gets at in, for example, the poem “greenville, south carolina, 1963”:
On the bus, my mother moves with us to the back.
It is 1963
in South Carolina.
Too dangerous to sit closer to the front
and dare the driver
to make her move. Not with us. Not now.
Me in her arms all of three months old. My sister
and brother squeezed into the seat beside her. White
shirt, tie, and my brother’s head shaved clean.
My sister’s braids
white ribboned.
I also loved “miss bell and the marchers” for similar reasons — because it pushes for the expansion of our understanding of heroism and carves a space out where the contributions of people whose actions don’t fit within the narratives we privilege can be acknowledged. Just like a mother who picks her battles and protects herself and her children deserves our respect, so does a woman like Miss Bell, who can’t afford to risk her job but contributes to the Civil Rights movement in other ways:
They look like regular people
visiting our neighbor Miss Bell,
foil-covered dishes held out in front of them
as they arrive
some in pairs,
some alone,
some just little kids
holding their mothers’ hands.
If you didn’t know, you’d think it was just
an evening gathering. Maybe church people
heading into Miss Bell’s house to talk
about God. But when Miss Bell pulls her blinds
closed, the people fill their dinner plates with food,
their glasses with sweet tea and gather
to talk about marching.
And even though Miss Bell works for a white lady
who said I will fire you in a minute if I ever see you
on that line!

Miss Bell knows that marching isn’t the only thing
she can do,
knows that people fighting need full bellies to think
and safe places to gather.
She knows the white lady isn’t the only one
who’s watching, listening, waiting,
to end this fight. So she keeps the marchers’
glasses filled, adds more corn bread
and potato salad to their plates,
stands in the kitchen ready to slice
lemon pound cake into generous pieces.
And in the morning, just before she pulls
her uniform from the closet, she prays,
God, please give me and those people marching
another day.
Revolutionary social movements wouldn’t happen without people like Miss Bell, who stand behind those on the frontlines and provide crucial support. More often than not their contributions end up being erased, all because they’re not what we have been taught to recognise as heroic or brave. It’s always wonderful to come across stories that deliberately set out to counter that.

I found Brown Girl Dreaming hard to read in public because every so often I’d come across a poem or a few verses that would make me tear up. Another wonderful book from a writer who has yet to fail to impresses me.

They read it too: Booklust, A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy, 1330v, The Book Smugglers, Necromancy Never Pays



  1. I love books written in verse and need to get my hands on this one.

  2. After reading so many wonderful reviews on Goodreads, this book certainly caught my attention. Your review cinches it. I need to get a copy - my own. Thanks for this special review!

  3. Kathy, I'll have another novels in verse rec for you next week!

    Grad: Aw, that's really nice of you. I'm glad to have persuaded you and I hope you enjoy the book!

  4. I am not sure whether I am a fan of books in verse, but this sounds lovely. Several people have recommended this author for me and/or my kids to read.

  5. I really want to read this. I kind of wish I had got it with my Christmas gift cards, but I had so much I wanted. I will hopefully get it this year!

  6. In my own review of this book I admitted that I am Woodson's age but have no consciousness of living through the events she describes, since my life was not directly affected by them. That made the book powerful for me, along with the parts about becoming a storyteller.

  7. Love Jeanne's comment above!

    And your review, too, of course. I found this book so powerful and beautifully written. I think I should get a copy for myself. I really enjoyed listening to it on audio, but it is so quotable, I want it for myself.

  8. And here I am tearing up as well, just from reading the poem about Miss Bell. I have been resisting this as I am not suuuuch a novel-in-verse kind of girl, but per usual you are making it sound unmissable.

  9. I rarely read verse, but the excerpts you've provided seem remarkably poignant. I may have to pick this one up.

  10. Irena McKenna: I hope you'll give it a try anyway - the narrative is really engrossing and you'll likely forget all about the format!

    Kelly: Yes, there was so much I wanted to get but didn't, even with generous gift cards!

    Jeanne: I went and reread your post and it's so great.

    Aarti: I bought it in hardback, which I don't do very often, and I don't regret it at all. Definitely one to keep.

    Jenny: Read it, read it! I think you'll like it a lot.

    Trisha: But it's narrative verse! I really think you'd like it.

    Marie: It deserves all the praise and all the awards!


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