Brown Girl Dreaming

“I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital

Columbus, Ohio,

USA—

 

between Black and White.”

 

Thus begins Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir in verse about growing up in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 12.48.36 PM

In chapter two, a three-page chapter titled “second daughter’s second day on earth,”  she distills the nation’s racial zeitgeist into the key moments and iconic figures of the times before wondering:

“…I do not know if these hands will become

Malcolm’s—raised and fisted

or Martin’s—open and asking

or James’s—curled around a pen.

I do not know if these hands will be

Rosa’s

or Ruby’s

gently gloved

and fiercely folded

calmly in a lap,

on a desk,

around a book,

ready

to change the world…”

The answer lies within the pages of Brown Girl Dreaming, a story about putting down roots and being uprooted, about having a dream, and about how experience fills children to overflowing.

But more than anything, this book is about the birth of a writer. In Woodson’s eyes, her sister, Dell, is brilliant with easily identifiable talents. Dell outshines Woodson’s star by gigawatts—until the poet finds her voice:

 

“It’s easier to make up stories

than it is to write them down. When I speak,

the words come pouring out of me. The story

wakes up and walks all over the room. Sits in a chair,

crosses one leg over the others, says,

Let me introduce myself. Then just starts going on and on.

But as I bend over my composition notebook,

only my name

comes quickly…”

 

Only the oral nature of story comes easily. Woodson struggles with writing—and reading. Words jump around, twist and turn on the page. When she goes to the library, she takes out picture books, long past the time others tell her to read books that are more difficult. But that is the moment when serendipity strikes.

 

“No one is there to say, Not that book,

when I stop in front of the small paperback

with a brown boy on the cover…

 

…If someone had been fussing with me

to read like my sister, I might have missed

the picture book filled with brown people, more

brown people than I’d ever seen

in a book before…

 

If someone had taken

that book out of my hand

said, You’re too old for this

maybe

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.”

 

Woodson makes a strong argument for the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign, doesn’t she?

Oh, there is so much in this book to love. Woodson’s gift, the gift of any poet, is her ability to create a complete picture (or at least hint at the complete picture), using a handful of precisely chosen fragments.  For example, in the breath of a moment, she illustrates the tremendous power of teachers:

 

“…No one is more kind than Ms. Fiedler, who meets me

at the door each morning,

takes my hand from my sister’s, smiles down and says,

Now that Jacqueline is here, the day can finally begin.

 

And I believe her.

Yes, I truly believe her.”

 

I hope that winning the National Book Award (for Young People’s literature – but I think everyone should read it) will give this marvelous creation the legs it deserves. You must excuse me, now. I’ve got to go read it again.

Cheers!

50 thoughts on “Brown Girl Dreaming

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    Wow, that sounds like wonderful reading. I loved the following:

    “I do not know if these hands will become
    Malcolm’s—raised and fisted
    or Martin’s—open and asking
    or James’s—curled around a pen.”

    How much those lines say in so few words!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, so evocative. Everything about this work, including the cover, is beautiful. It’s amazing to watch the awkward girl develop into the sure-footed writer who gifts us this book. I’ve got to read more of her work now.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      My son has this issue, too. He reads like a fiend and can tell stories all day long, but if you ask him to write them down, there’s a disconnect. For me, I struggle to tell a story verbally. I’d much rather have the opportunity to write them down and get them right before sharing with anyone else. 😀

      And yes, this is a lovely book, one I hope you’ll take a peek at!

      • Mrs. P says:

        Although there is a chance that he struggles with some aspect of writing and simply isn’t fluent enough in the skill, making it arduous to want to write his stories. You can try recording him when he is telling a story.

        My grandson and I have a game where we share pictures of animals we see in our neighborhood. I did it as a way of keeping connected long distance. With my grandson, I’m going to try getting him to tell me stories about each animal using Adobe Voice to record them. Then I’ll put them into the video format. I may write out a script of the video so that he can read along with it. Hopefully this will connect the verbal to the written. I’m hoping it works. 😀

  2. Mrs. P says:

    Oh my gosh…I love this book! The bits you shared were wonderful and I would love to read more.

    I wish I could articulate a thought so descriptively. Already moved by the first sample you gave, these lines were fabulous, “The story

    wakes up and walks all over the room. Sits in a chair,

    crosses one leg over the others, says,

    Let me introduce myself. Then just starts going on and on.”

    Truly beautiful use of the English language. Great review.

  3. Lady Fancifull says:

    So. My eyes did the teary, leaky, spouty thing at every quote. And then I headed over to Amazon’s look inside and discovered yes it is THIS side of the pond too. And i read some more, and wept some more and my heart went all huge, floppy and tried to get outside of my ribcage. So I bought it from a third party seller.

    And, now I’ve stopped weeping(so much tenderness in the excerpts, its like being dissolved from one’s edges) I shall need to make sure there are tissues a plenty for when the postman comes.

    I don’t think this is going to join the TBR queue, Jilanne, I suspect it will just grab me and sit me down and insist on engagement

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Successs!!!! Oh, and you will breeze right through it (pausing for long moments to absorb the perfectness of a phrase or an image), and then you will go back for a re-read, and perhaps you will underline your favorite parts and think about them over and over again while you’re staring out the window or peeling potatoes with the peels falling like tears into the sink (to quote a famous poet from your side of the pond), and it will become part of your body and life everlasting.

  4. FictionFan says:

    Sounds like a great mix of powerful images in fairly simple language – great for young people. Please explain to this foreigner who James and Ruby are – I got all the rest of the references, but not those two. I’m another who can do verbal flights of imagination but can’t turn them into the written word – but it seems that Woodson found her way past that problem…

      • FictionFan says:

        Goodness! What a story – thanks for the link! It’s unbelievable to me that that was happening only a few years before my own school years. I’m not for one moment claiming our society isn’t racist – it was then and still is – but nothing like that. My primary school was all white, I think – there weren’t many people from black or Asian backgrounds in Glasgow then, and those that there were tended to live in certain areas – but really not ghettos (I think). But my secondary school was pretty multi-cultural for the time, and I honestly don’t think any of us thought much about it at all. In fact, it was a standing joke in Glasgow that we didn’t have time to be racist because we were still too busy fighting over religion…

        Haha! Thanks! But like all failed wannabe writers, I seem to have become a critic… 😉

  5. Sheila says:

    I’ll definitely be adding this one to my reading pile – thank you! I loved this passage:

    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

    Very powerful. It makes me think of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings even though I haven’t read that in a long time.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Thanks, Marsha! There are so many more beautiful lines, images, chapters, etc. in that book, it was difficult to select which few to share. I hope you have the chance to take a look at it. I don’t think you will be disappointed. Cheers!

      • tchistorygal says:

        Jilanne, you read many children’s books. I have forgotten, are you a teacher? I had to do a project for a literature class once and read something like 100 children’s book and write a short review (much shorter than you read.) It was very helpful in my teaching career.

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