Review written by Jonathan Lavallee.
There is a distinct lack of poetry in the world. Part of that could be that we hold poetry on this weird dusty pedestal, surrounded by academics all nodding sagely and talking in hushed tones about the power of words. That or we’ve put it down among the toys for small children, rhyming schemes and sounds that are meant to entertain but often grate on the ears after one too many repetitions. Maybe it’s both—maybe we’ve pushed it to the edges of our consciousness and have decided to be done with it.
Thank goodness Jacqueline Woodson came along to write brown girl dreaming. This is a book about her growing up as a young black girl in New York and South Carolina. The story talks about how she feels torn between the two places. How life is incredibly different in so many ways, but both places feel like home. This is a story about family, and friends, and feelings. It’s a wonderful poem that takes us from the beginning when she’s born to when she’s told that she’s going to be a writer. It’s not a long period of time—Jacqueline is still a child when a teacher first tells her that—but it’s the perfect length for this book.
Really the only way to tell this story is the long poem form that Jacqueline Woodson uses. The language flows and you find yourself floating along with Jacqueline, and you get the emotions of the story. She mixes it up beautifully too, with longer narrative poems that make you forget that you’re reading poetry, and shorter harder hitting poems, in particular the “how to listen” series. There is plenty to talk about as Jacqueline deals with her feelings on religion, death, life, art, people, and growing up as a young black girl in the middle of the civil rights movement.
I don’t want to say that this book has a message. It does, but it’s there in its existence and not necessarily in what it’s saying. Everything that happens is a matter of fact, there aren’t really any cudgel moments when this book tries to beat what it wants into you. It tells you a story, and from the words on the page you get everyone: the anxiety over the movement; the worry about participating; people finding ways to help out; the pride people feel, no matter where they are and what they’re facing; the thousand small slights that happen every day, and how they deal with it.
But that’s the background. That’s what’s happening, and while Jacqueline doesn’t shy away from it, the story is all about her and her family. It’s about the emotion. It’s such a luscious and wonderful book that you should probably read it out loud with your tween. The words are beautiful and they want to be heard, but there are plenty of opportunities to talk about what’s going on, or even talk about the language that’s being used. It’s not particularly “poetic,” it’s not filled with large words and nothing but metaphor after metaphor, but the smaller poems can be particularly dense.
This book is great for any tween—the younger ones you’ll probably want to read it to them, and if your older tween balks at being read to, then you can take comfort that you’ve giving them a wonderful book to read.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
It is the backdrop in which the book lives. It’s the opening tension between Jacqueline’s parents, where he says that he’s happy living in Ohio because it’s not the south. When they move back to Greenville, her grandmother reminds them of all the little things that they need to do in order to not have to deal with the anger of the white people who surround them.
The grandmother is a Jehovah’s Witness and Jacqueline deals with the emotions that come with being a part of that, and not a part of that at the same time. Her grandmother is a deep believer, but her mother is less so, and eventually her uncle converts to Islam while he’s in prison. There’s some internal debate about faith, and what it means to believe something and the practice of that belief. There are even those who question what’s going on—while their grandmother believes, their grandfather doesn’t and is vocal about his lack of faith in organized religion. “what i believe,” one of the last poems in the book, really kind of covers the idea of religion, faith, and belief.
Death happens in the book. It’s not gruesome or horrible other than in the ways that death normally is. Jacqueline’s grandfather dies from cancer, their Aunt Kay dies because she fell down some stairs. The fact about death that the book doesn’t shy away from is the kind of arbitrary nature of death, and that people are affected by it. The family moves when Kay dies, and Jacqueline’s mother isn’t really the same. The same thing happens when their grandfather dies, and their grandmother moves up to New York with them. Jacqueline notes that she isn’t the same, and feels the same kind of loss within her.
Family is both beautiful and complicated. There is a lot of love, but it’s all mixed up and kind of messy. It’s a good messy, a real kind of messy. There’s a difference in how Jacqueline’s mother deals with being an authoritative parent, to the stricter method of her grandmother. Family is also shown to be bigger than just your relations, an epiphany that Jacqueline realizes when she gets invited to the party, strictly for family, that her friend Maria throws.
Are you still here reading this? Go, go now and get this book. Read it, share it with your tween, talk about it! Go, go, go!
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brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Published in 2014 by Nancy Paulsen Books
Read as an eBook