Bibliography: Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York, New York: Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Books USA), 2014. ISBN-13: 978-0399252518.
Plot Summary: Jacqueline tells the story of herself and her family and how her home is in the South and in New York. She is born when so much history is happening around her as stated in the poem, “second daughter’s second day on earth.” While her birth certificate is getting done, “In Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr./ is planning a march on Washington, where/ John F. Kennedy is president. / In Harlem, Malcolm X is standing on a soapbox/ talking about a revolution.” She writes out her memories as she grows up, as so many changes happen in her life, such as getting a younger sibling, moving to a new home, dealing with her uncle going to prison. She writes about how she handles it all and how even her own siblings grow into their own persons.
Critical Analysis: Woodson’s writing is sparse but loaded, effective with the way she foreshadows her grandfather, Daddy’s death, “I do not know yet/ how sometimes the earth makes a promise/ it can never keep. Tobacco fields/ lay fallow, crops picked clean./ My grandfather coughs again/ and the earth waits/ for what and who it will get in return.”
Jacqueline loves words but finds herself going a different way about approaching them compared to her older sister, Dell. Where Dell excels at reading book after book quickly, Jacqueline takes a longer time to finish, letting the words absorb her. She makes up her own phrasings inside her head. Unfortunately, teachers at first get excited at having her for a student until they realize she learns differently from Dell. And, unfortunately, while the reader realizes that Jacqueline observes and reads like a poet, that Jacqueline is going to grow up to be a writer, the teachers themselves dismiss her. In the poem, “the other woodson,” the teachers keep waiting to see if she will act like Dell, but then they remember that she is “the other Woodson and begin searching for brilliance at another desk.”
Jacqueline’s narration says so many things in so few lines. She can show how limiting the adults’s viewpoint is that there is only one way to brilliance and that is by how quick children go through things, such as Dell. They end up ignoring great minds like Jacqueline. She also shows how that viewpoint is so limiting because the reader is reading Jacqueline’s point-of-view, we see what she utilizes for an emotional, sensory experience.
Woodson is strong in conveying a sensory experience, especially as she links it to nostalgia and the bittersweet emotions from that. She plays the senses with a rhythm to her verses. Part of the experience is how she paints the North and the South as contrasts. There are emotions tied to both places. With the south, Jacqueline feels free in many ways that is close to serene, such as running barefoot or catching fireflies in jars. In the winter, she talks of how it is like to be with her grandfather on the porch swing, ” a blanket around us as we sit on the front porch swing./ Its whine like a song. / You don’t need words/ on a night like this./ Just the warmth/ of your grandfather’s arm. Just the silent promise/ that the world as we know it/ will always be here.” Things are not always so sweet in the South, however. In a previous poem, Jacqueline narrates about the trauma of segregation in Greenville, where, despite a White Only sign being painted over, “…you can still see the words, right there/ like a ghost standing in front/ still keeping you out.”
When Jacqueline and her siblings move to New York with their mother, they miss South Carolina constantly, but then they start growing and start forming their own selves within New York while never forgetting their roots. For one thing, Jacqueline makes a best friend, “All the dreams this city holds/ right outside–just step through the door and walk/ two doors down to where/ my new best friend, Maria, lives.” New York is also where Jacqueline falls in love with the form of a poem. She is entranced when her teacher reads a poem about a birch tree and talks of how enthralled the whole class is, “And even though we’ve never seen an ice storm/ we’ve seen a birch tree, so we can imagine/ everything we need to imagine/ forever and ever/ infinity/ amen.”
This is a book about the many parts a person can have. They carry the legacy of both sides of the family, they can believe different things, they can consider different places their homes. As Jacqueline says near the end, “I believe in johnny pumps and jump ropes,/ Malcolm and Martin/ Buckeyes and Birmingham/ writing and listening, bad words and good words–/ I believe in Brooklyn!/ I believe in one day and someday and this/ perfect moment called Now.” This memoir of verses should be read-aloud, for both the beautiful imagery and the lilting rhythm that can empower anyone.
Review Excerpt and Awards won:
The Coretta Scott King Book Awards Author Winner (2015); National Book Award for Young People’s Literature (2014); NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Young Adult Fiction (2015); John Newbery Medal Honor (2016).
Following excerpt is from The New York Times, by Veronica Chambers, dated August 22, 2014:
“I thought of Nikki Giovanni and the teenage girl I was, almost constantly, as I read Jacqueline Woodson’s wonderful memoir in verse, “Brown Girl Dreaming,” because I suspect this book will be to a generation of girls what Giovanni’s book was to mine: a history lesson, a mash note passed in class, a book to read burrowed underneath the bed covers and a life raft during long car rides when you want to float far from wherever you are, and wherever you’re going, toward the person you feel destined to be…t is as rich a spread as the potluck table at a family reunion. Sure, you can plow through the pages, grabbing everything you can in one go, like piling a plate high with fried chicken and ribs, potato salad and corn bread. And yes, it’s entirely possible to hold that plate with one hand while balancing a bowl of gumbo and a cup of sweet tea with the other. But since the food isn’t going anywhere, you’ll make out just as well, maybe even a little better, if you pace yourself.”
This verse novel is organized in a way that it is thick as regular novel, but you find yourself quickly sweeping through, entranced by the vivid words Woodson writes. She even organizes them like memories, where one would experience vignettes of a daily life. This is truly a coming-of-age story.
Connections: A connection that can be made by reading this story is to have students interview guardians, parents, or grandparents over a favorite childhood memory. Have the student then write a poem out of that childhood memory. This can show students how to create poem out of a topic.