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Book Notes: Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson


Jacqueline Woodson’s newest book Brown Girl Dreaming tells the narrative of her childhood through a collection of poems. Woodson has won numerous awards for the work of her prolific writing career, and Brown Girl Dreaming is a finalist for the National Book Award. Here, Woodson sketches a thoughtful portrait of a herself as a girl, figuring out the world, becoming a person, and becoming a writer.

The first poems are set in Ohio, where Woodson is born. Just a year or so later, her mother takes her and two older siblings to live with her own parents in Greenville, South Carolina. Woodson’s mother tells her children, “We’re only halfway home.” She knows they won’t stay there; 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 one for Jackie and her siblings. Woodson imagines her mother, standing in the middle of a road, stretching her arms toward both North and South, and this is how Woodson herself is for the majority of the book. During summers in South Carolina, where the Civil Rights movement gains momentum, Woodson’s Northern speech and mannerisms 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 element of Woodson’s childhood.  The love she feels from her mother, grandparents, and extended family tethers her, protects her, and makes her strong. Much of who she is, from physical traits like the gap between her teeth to her love of telling stories, she traces back to her family. They also give Woodson 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 Jackie revels in the realization that each of us has a unique brilliance. Her brilliance, she knows, is words.

As a child, Jackie announces that she’s going to be a writer. She cherishes an empty notebook, learns by mimicking 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 is a gift, and a key.

These are the first of Woodson’s poems that I’ve read, and I enjoy them just as much as I enjoy her beautiful prose. Some of these 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 writing reminds me of the awe we have as children, the hush and magic in moments as simple as whispering to your best friends in the dark. Through writing Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson recreates that magic, and allows us to go back there with her.

This is a wonderful book 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.

Book Notes: The Fault in Our Stars

This book came from a friend with this warning: Don’t read it in public (unless you like crying in front of strangers).

I expected a book about kids with terminal cancer to be sad. I didn’t necessarily expect it to be so irreverent, truthful, hilarious, smart, and universal.

Hazel is dying, and she knows it. Although a miraculous cancer drug (imagined by the author) keeps her cancer under control, she lives each day with the knowledge that this drug merely extends her life. The fact that her cancer is incurable informs everything that she does. Or does not do. Hazel is waiting to die, and while she does, she is trying to minimize her contact with the living.

Hazel and Augusts meet at a cancer support group. Living in the moment takes on a very literal meaning. They get through the physical and emotional pain in their lives by fiercely loving the people, books, sunshine, trees, and laughter that life also offers. Hazel and Augustus quote from their favorite book: “Pain demands to be felt.” John Green’s book shows us that love demands to be felt, too. Hazel and Augustus could deny themselves the pleasure of the other’s company, but they could no sooner turn off their feelings for each other than they could choose to make the sun set at will. Many things in this life are out of our control, and must be accepted. Green’s characters live with that vivid reality more so than most of the rest of us do.

“The world is not a wish-granting factory,” Hazel and Augustus remind each other throughout the book, a joke referring to the “cancer perks” that kids with cancer receive. No number of perks can take the sting out of the injustice in their situation. Hazel and Augustus have experienced a life’s worth of grief and disappointment in their short time, and it has made them honest in ways that I can only describe as brave, even though Hazel and Augustus would both roll their eyes at my use of the “b” word.

The title of the book comes from a Shakespearian line: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ But in ourselves.” No, argues the fictional author Peter Van Houten in a letter to Augustus, “there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars.” Our stars are flawed, our stars are beautiful, and these two qualities are very much dependent on the other. Life – whether it is a minute or a century long – demands that we experience both. And that we learn to trust in our own strength, and in the strength of those we love, to get us all through.

Through his empathy and imagination, John Green understands what it might be like to face one’s own death before having had the chance to experience so much of what the rest of the world thinks of as life. The truly genius thing about this hopeful and surprising story is that Green shows how we each have the opportunity – each day, each moment – to live. Hazel and Augustus don’t so much inspire as instruct us to start now.

This post was first published on the Girls Leadership Insitute blog.

Book Notes: Chains

There are historical fiction books that feel like glorified textbooks, with the story functioning as the carrot to get you to learn your history. And then there are engrossing stories with historical settings that always feel like the backdrop; they never quite become three-dimensional.

And, then, there are stories like this.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Chains is a page-turner of a story. The main character Isabel and her sister Ruth are slaves, sold to wealthy Loyalists in New York City just as the American Revolution is starting to generate heat. Having experienced the death of both her parents, Isabel has already shed any semblance of a childhood. She plays the role of mother and protector to Ruth, and tries to shield her from the critical glare of Mrs. Lockton, who is always looking for an excuse to insult or abuse the two girls.

Other characters – both Patriots and Loyalists – show some kindnesses to Isabel and Ruth, in particular Mr. Lockton’s aunt Lady Seymour, who tells Isabel that she’d wanted to buy her from her nephew’s household. Through Isabel’s eyes these clumsy kindnesses are disappointing. “I tried to be grateful but could not,” she says. “A body does not like being bought and sold like a basket of eggs, even if the person who cracks the shells is kind.” The only friend that Isabel has is Curzon, a slave who is convinced that fighting side by side with the Patriots will secure his own freedom. Isabel is less wiling to tie her chances for freedom or survival to anyone else.

The characters are rich and compelling, and the story is fast-paced. But, Halse Anderson does not skimp on historical details. She creates a richly detailed and fascinating world, and brings its nuances alive through the politics, geography, events, and people of the time. Even the cadences of the characters’ speech rang true in my mind’s ear. The historical setting and characteristics have a rich interplay with Isabel and her story, with the events of the war and the city affecting Isabel’s prospects deeply. For example, the fire that ravages much of the city gives Isabel the chance to save Lady Seymour’s life, a fact which prompts the woman to protect the slave later in the story. However, it also forces Isabel back into the Lockton’s home, where she is again subjected to Mrs. Lockton’s cruelty. When the British take Fort Washington and force the rebel prisoners into a downtown prison, it brings Curzon back into the city, desperately in need of help. Isabel’s decision to come to his aid not only strengthens their bond, but also brings out Isabel’s boldness. She learns how to break the rules, a skill that comes in handy for her much later.

As the Americans fight to liberate themselves, so does Isabel. Her battle mirrors theirs in many ways, with its urgency, its low odds of success, and its grave setbacks.  After reading her story, I felt more intrigued by this time in our country’s history than ever before. Halse Anderson’s beautiful writing and Isabel’s urgent story are a compelling combination.

Her follow-up to this book Forge will be on sale next month, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

I finished reading Common Sense the night before the ball. The bookseller was right; the words were dangerous, every one of them. I ought throw it in the fire but could not bring myself to do it. Mr. Paine knew how to stir up the pot; he went right after the King and attacked the crown on his head…

‘Twas a wonder the book did not explode into flames in my hands.

-Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Book Notes: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
The Newbery Awards were announced just a couple of weeks ago, and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
by Jacqueline Kelly was named as a Newbery Honor book. I’d already intended to read it, despite the fact that there is nary a mention of vampires, secret anarchist districts, or, even, romance.  However, it is a Young Adult book, it’s historical fiction (set in one of my favorite time periods – just on the cusp of the 20th century), and the protagonist is a girl.  So, it had a lot going for it in terms of my ARE (Anticipated Reading Enjoyment and – yes! – I just made up that silly acronym).

Turns out there was a bit of romance, just not the kind of romance I’d grown accustomed to reading about in YA novels.  Eleven-year-old Calpurnia – Callie – falls in love plenty in this book.  She falls in love with micro-organisms.  She falls in love with grasshoppers.  With a plant called hairy vetch.  With the whole natural world, in fact.  And Callie falls in love with her grandfather.

It’s this romance, between granddaughter and grandfather, that is so moving, and reminds me that we find what we need in unexpected places, but we do find it.  In her grandfather, an eccentric, intimidating recluse, Callie finds a much-needed teacher.  He opens her eyes to the scientific method and to the wonders around her.  He gives her the controversial book The Origin of Species by a scientist named Charles Darwin.  Callie’s grandfather has lived enough of his own life to see her for who she is, without needing her to fulfill his expectations of her.

Even though she is only eleven, Callie chafes against the constraints placed on girls of her time and, particularly, in her socially important family.  Why should she, and not her brothers, have to spend precious hours learning to cook and knit and sew, when there are discoveries to be made with microscope and net?  Why should she face the prospect of “coming out,” being shopped around to potential husbands just so she can have a life like her mother has, when she has a mind that longs to puzzle over scientific questions at the University?  And, while she has plenty of cause to revolt against the constraints, she feels conflicted because she also loves the instruments of her constraint – loves her mother, loves her home.

In the end, the book seems to me to be about discoveries.  Callie lives in a time in which the many important discoveries were an exciting indication of progress and industry.  She and her Grandaddy make plenty of discoveries of their own, some scientific and some personal.  And Callie’s family – in particular, her mother – is on the verge of discovering Callie, just as I did.  Discovering the smart, confused, frustrated, angry, and jubilant girl that she is was a joy for me.  Callie is about as “real girl” as it gets.

If I were still teaching 5th grade, I’d read this book to my class.  Since I’m not, I’ll simply recommend it for girls in 5th grade or older.  Plus, it’d be a really nice addition to my recommendations for mother-daughter book clubs on Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations.

This post also appears on the Girls Leadership Institute Blog.

Digging God and Marcelo

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork
I know I don’t look like the destructive type, but I once totaled my husband’s nativity set.

Well, I didn’t destroy it personally, but I did call in some hired muscle in the form of a disturbed dog. When the job was done and the wise men’s dismembered bodies were strewn around the kitchen floor, I secretly did a jig.

I celebrate Christmas, but you won’t find a nativity scene at my house. It’s not because I’m so private about my religion, or because Banana Republic and Zales have killed my spirituality with their ubiquitous marketing campaigns. In all honesty, I believe in God, and I love the story of Jesus’ birth.

But I keep it quiet. Because, let’s face it, it’s just not cool to dig God.

I recently read the wonderful book Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, about a boy named Marcelo with a diagnosis that lies somewhere on the mild end of the autism spectrum. Marcelo has managed to create a world for himself that is comfortable and familiar. He goes to a special school, lives in his tree house, works with horses, delves into religious pursuits, and retreats to his “internal music” whenever life gets to be too much for him. Then, one summer, his father demands that Marcelo enter the “real world,” which translates into taking a job in the mailroom at his father’s law firm. Marcelo’s eyes are opened in some alarming ways, and seeing the real world – our world – through Marcelo’s frank and naive gaze is a little uncomfortable for the reader, because it’s so true.

In one particularly interesting scene, Marcelo and his dad are traveling on the commuter rail together for Marcelo’s first day at the law firm. To calm his nerves, Marcelo takes out his rosary and begins to pray quietly. His father calmly explains that praying is not appropriate public behavior. It’s just not done. I was thinking that the dad was a real jerk, and then I realized: if he’s a jerk, so am I. The dad is right. We live in a secular world, and there are rules we must follow to succeed. In general, people who are considered successful don’t make a fuss about their faith.

I don’t have any need to evanglize, but I don’t want to hide an aspect of myself that is becoming increasingly important to me. It’s hard to imagine feeling comfortable even mentioning prayer, church, or God in a group of my peers, the vast majority of whom do not practice religion. It’s not comfortable to admit it, but even though I’m all “grown up,” I still want to fit in. Shouldn’t I have outgrown this feeling by now?

Acknowledging faith in God makes me feel vulnerable, so I resist. I’ve been too embarrassed to be enthusiastic about religion or, really, about anything that makes me seem less than strong, less than self-sufficient. It’s the same way I used to feel about therapy Getting over that was a necessary step in helping my marriage thrive, and I’m so grateful that I did.

It’s scary to admit to believing in something that’s invisible, or to get help when you need it, or to build a life around loving someone else. It’s scary to need anything, period. People might laugh or, worse, judge me.

Seems a bit late, but I’m finally realizing what people mean when they say, “live your life for you.” My self-consciousness has gotten me nothing, except a bubble of protection from the mockery that I fear. Yet, how many things has that self-consciousness cost me?

Well, church, for one.