Poetry Camp inspired me to be a more regular visitor to my library (thanks, Janet Wong!). My fascination with verse novels prompted me to pick up Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.
I quickly discovered, though, that this isn’t exactly a verse novel. It’s a memoir—the story of young Jacqueline taking us through her childhood and to a time she comes to realize what her dream is and begins to see it blossom in her life.
The whole thing is told in verse—in free verse poems that are simple. I would say deceptively simple for almost all end in a way that put me on my heels and had me thinking: I believe there is more to this than what first meets the eye. In other words, these accessible poems also invite re-reading.
I love the real-life detail that makes the characters, the brothers and sisters, Grandma and Grandpa, mother, aunts and uncles, come alive. While reading this book I experienced the phenomenon of the particularities of Jacqueline’s life becoming a vessel for my own experience—even though the setting and characters are vastly different.
As I read I also enjoyed one of the advantages of verse novels—how quickly the pages slipped by. I read through this 338-page tome in mere hours.
The book touches on lots of topics:
– What it was like to be an African American girl in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s (Woodson was born in 1963). This book was a great empathy builder for me.
– Family—what is a family, how family members relate to each other, the joy of being together. The family theme runs deeply and widely through the book. I loved the mini family album of photos at the end of the book and the fact that the pictures were of family members as children—about the age that the target audience would be.
“Football Dreams,” about her father, is a poem about family:
No one was faster
than my father on the football field.
No one could keep him
from crossing the line. Then
touching down again.
Coaches were watching the way he moved,
his easy stride, his long arms reaching
up, snatching the ball from its soft pockets
Read the rest…
– Feeling different is another theme. Not only was Woodson’s color a source of difference, but she was brought up Jehovah’s Witness. “Flag” tells about having to leave the classroom when the students made the flag pledge but how inside she wanted to be there and pledge big:
Alina and I want
more than anything to walk back into our classroom
press our hands against our hearts. Say,
“I pledge allegiance . . .” loud…”
The poem ends:
When the pledge is over, we walk single file
back into the classroom, take our separate seats
Alina and I far away from Gina. But Gina
always looks back at us—as if to say,
I’m watching you. As if to say,
The book tackles more themes including death, tolerance, and finding joy in life, relationships and one’s passion.
On this page of her website Ms. Woodson gives a bit more information about writing the book.
This was a beautiful, upbeat, and educational read that would be perfect for children in the middle grades–ages 10 and up, Grades 5 and up.
Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Award in 2014. (In the second video on the linked page she reads from the book.)
This post is linked to Poetry Friday, hosted today by the lovely Irene Latham at Live Your Poem.