Tag Archives: upper grades

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: Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree

Ever since I began creating lists of good books for girls like this one, people have been recommending that I read Lauren Tarshis’ book Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree. I finally got around to it, and I’m so glad that I did. This book now figures among my favorites for upper grade and middle school girls. In fact, this treasure of a book makes me wish I could get in my time machine and go back to my 5th grade classroom so I could ensure that some of the girls in that room received their dose of Emma-Jean.

Alas, I can’t remember where I parked my time machine. Don’t you just hate when that happens?

It’s impossible not to fall in love with Emma-Jean. She’s socially clueless in all the best ways, plus has a great mix of intelligence, curiosity, caring, and precociousness. The character harkens back to Anne of Green Gables and Harriet the Spy – which puts her in rarefied company, indeed.

In this story, Emma-Jean seems to be content with her social circle, which mostly consists of her mother, her teacher, the school janitor, and the grad student who rents out their spare room. She observes and analyzes her peers with a sense of curiosity bordering on fascination, much as a scientist might examine animals in an experiment. But, no matter how curious, she’s content not to be involved in their senseless and often confusing social customs and rituals. Emma-Jean manages to maintain this remove until the day when she encounters a girl named Colleen Pomerantz crying in the bathroom. Because she is a girl who likes to solve a problem, Emma-Jean offers to help solve Colleen’s problem, which has to do with a “mean girl” type who wields so much social power that she scares the girls who surround her into submission and obedience.

Somehow, Tarshis creates a character in Emma-Jean who is naive, but not pitiable. What she lacks in social graces she makes up for with her intellect, honesty, and what Colleen refers to (with awe) as not caring what others think. Tarshis also successfully writes a book for kids that doesn’t feel like it talks down to them. I tend to assume that books for upper grade children will be mostly predictable but, in this case, I found myself wondering how it would all turn out in the end. Would Emma-Jean learn how to have friends her own age? Would Colleen and the others learn from Emma-Jean how to think for themselves?

My only complaint about the story is the character of Emma-Jean’s mother. As a single mother (Emma-Jean’s father died some time before the start of the story), Emma-Jean’s mother never shows an ounce of impatience or frustration. She always knows exactly the right thing to say to soothe her quirky daughter’s doubts and answer her questions. Even when she demonstrates grief over losing her husband – crying just twice a year – it seems a very controlled and reasoned sort of outburst.

As a parent myself, I prefer characters like Colleen Pomerantz’s mother, who almost never knows what to say to her daughter. It’s not that I want to be a clueless parent. It’s just that I know I mostly am. And, like Colleen’s mother, I try very hard even if my efforts are mostly barking up the wrong tree. Ultimately, Colleen’s mother does help her daughter get the guidance and support that she needs, and I thought it very wise of her to know that she could not be the one to provide it.

Tarshis’ first book is an impressive mix of smarts and heart, just like Emma-Jean herself. The book’s sensitivity to the complicated relationships that young people have in middle school, plus the lovely writing and metaphors, make it an easy recommendation for upper grade readers, and it wouldn’t hurt for their parents to read it, either. Sometimes, it’s good to remember.