Jacqueline Woodson’s newest bookÂ Brown Girl Dreaming tells the narrative of her childhood through a collectionÂ of poems. Woodson has won numerous awards for the work of herÂ prolificÂ writing career, andÂ Brown Girl Dreaming is a finalist for the National Book Award. Here, WoodsonÂ sketches a thoughtfulÂ portrait of a herself as a girl,Â figuring out the world, becoming a person, and becoming a writer.
The first poems are set inÂ Ohio, where Woodson is born. Just a year or so later, her mother takes her and two older siblings to live with her own parentsÂ in Greenville, South Carolina. Woodson’s mother tells her children, “We’re only halfway home.” She knows they won’t stay there;Â many of her family and friends have already moved to New York City, and that’s where they head, too.
The book deals in large part with the notion of home, a difficult oneÂ for Jackie and her siblings. Woodson imagines her mother, standing in the middle of a road, stretching her armsÂ toward both North and South, and this is how Woodson herself is for the majority of theÂ book. During summers in South Carolina, where the Civil Rights movement gains momentum, Woodson’s Northern speech and mannerismsÂ differentiate her and her siblings from the other children. In New York, she longs for the beauty and richness of life with her grandparents down South.
Family is the defining elementÂ of Woodson’s childhood. Â The love she feels from her mother, grandparents, and extended family tethers her, protects her, and makes her strong. Much of who she is, fromÂ physical traits likeÂ the gap between her teeth to her love ofÂ telling stories, she traces back to her family. TheyÂ alsoÂ give WoodsonÂ the strength to be different, to find her own path, to pursue her passion for writing. Watching her brother sing in a school concert, young JackieÂ revels in theÂ realization that each of usÂ has a unique brilliance. Her brilliance, she knows,Â is words.
As a child, Jackie announcesÂ that she’s going to be a writer. She cherishesÂ an empty notebook, learns by mimickingÂ greats like Langston Hughes, writes songs, and binds her own book of poetry. Like home and the love of her family, writing makes her feel powerful. She sees early on that writing isÂ a gift, and a key.
These are the first of Woodson’sÂ poems that I’ve read, and I enjoy them just as much as I enjoy her beautifulÂ prose. Some of theseÂ poems are vignettes, some descriptions, and some just ideas, like the poem “how to listen #7:”
Even the silence
has a story to tell you.
Just listen. Listen.
One of my favorite poems tells of the warm nights when Jackie and her siblings sit as quietly as they can, listening to the adults tell stories. They’re careful to be invisible, because as soon as the adults remember their presence, they’ll be sent away from the grown-up talk. In their bed later, Jackie repeats the stories aloud, over and over, until well after her siblings are asleep. Woodson’s writingÂ reminds me of the awe we have as children, the hush and magic in moments as simple as whisperingÂ to your best friends in the dark. Through writingÂ Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson recreates that magic, and allows us to go back there with her.
This is a wonderful bookÂ for children in upper grades and beyond, particularly those children who love reading and writing stories. They’re likely to be inspired to pick up an empty notebook and start filling it. I know I am.