Jacqueline Woodson knew she would be a writer from an early age. As she grew up with one foot in Greenville, South Carolina, where she spent her summers, and the other in Brooklyn with her single mother, going to school and playing hopscotch and jump rope with her three siblings and her Puerto Rican best friend, she got in trouble for making up stories. “Stop daydreaming!” her mother admonishes in this poetic memoir. But by fourth grade, her talent begins to be appreciated. “Brilliant! my teacher says, smiling,” after she tells a story to the class. “Jackie, that was absolutely beautiful. And I know now…. Words are my brilliance” (248). Her first book is a collection of seven poems about butterflies, written in elementary school. Making her dreams come true ever since, Woodson has received accolades for her many young adult novels—including Show Way (2005), If You Come Softly (2010), and Harbor Me (2018)—and two bestselling adult novels, Another Brooklyn (2017) and Red at the Bone (2019).
Brown Girl Dreaming, this year’s JMRL Same Page Community Read selection, is a memoir in verse that earned the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature as well as the Coretta Scott King award and a Newbery Honor award; Woodson was also named the Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation in 2015, and the 2018-2019 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Her book was discussed at the Crozet Library Book Club at its March 2 meeting, and will be again at an intergenerational book chat on Monday, March 16 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Crozet Library, with refreshments based on the book. Woodson will present a free Same Page reading and discussion at PVCC on Wednesday, March 18, at 6:30 p.m., which is open to the public. She will also be the guest speaker for the Virginia Festival of the Book’s Literary Luncheon on Thursday, March 19, at 11:45 am, where she will talk about her new novel, Red at the Bone, one of Oprah Magazine’s Best Books of 2019. Don’t bother trying to get tickets—the luncheon is already sold out. But this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book, from March 18 to March 22, will host many other literary events for book lovers.
This touching memoir recounts Woodson’s childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving Ohio to live in Greenville, South Carolina, with her grandparents, as they are surrounded by the marches and sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement, where they are afraid and have to sit in the back of the bus. “Because we have a right,’ our grandfather tells us” in the “South Carolina at War” chapter, “…. To walk and sit and dream wherever we want’” (72). Her single mother later moves the family to New York City, but she always misses the “sweet smell of honeysuckle” and “soft squish of pine” in the south. In her NBA acceptance speech, Woodson thanked her mother for being part of the Great Migration that brought her and her siblings north to safety and respect. The book also describes her experiences being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, not allowed to say the pledge of allegiance at school nor celebrate Halloween, Christmas, or birthdays—and knocking on doors to bring the “good news” to her neighbors, arms full of Watchtower magazines.
The wonder, joy, and pain of coming of age is told in lyrical poetry, each chapter a poem spanning only one to two pages. Telling her story through verse allows Woodson to condense events and focus on only the most meaningful moments using vivid images, heartfelt emotions, and deep reflection. As she explained during a school visit, “I wrote it in verse because I was writing about memory. A memory comes in these small, intense moments, but there’s all this white space around it. You don’t know what happened before or after, and so to write it as a straight narrative would have been dishonest because I don’t remember it that way.” This format makes for easy reading, because the lines are brief, the chapters short, and the language accessible, told from the point of view of a child. But the ideas and emotions expressed are no less complex for that; the bare bones simplicity of the language implies far more than it states outright.
These gentle, spare poems are an ideal medium to convey the pain of her father’s leaving, the fear of her baby brother Roman’s long hospital sojourn caused by the lead paint he loved to eat off the wall of their Brooklyn apartment, and the despair of visiting her Uncle Robert at Dannemora Prison, where he was sent after a stint on Rikers Island. “We board the bus when the sun is just kissing the sky/ Darkness like a cape that we wear for hours, curled into it/ and back to sleep” (267). The death of her beloved grandfather in South Carolina is expressed so eloquently it brings tears. Although this format chops up the narrative flow somewhat, it lends an emotional poignancy and a tender beauty to the whole. Members of the Crozet Library Book Club were moved by the book. “Not only is it easy to read, but it’s remarkable in its ability to tell a story beautifully in very few words. The author’s way with words is wonderful and appealing to all ages,” commented longtime book club member Martha Weiss.
The National Book Award judges’ citation agreed. “Using words that sing with both the complexity and simplicity of a symphony, and memories that both sting and inspire, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming is an intimate journey of victory, sorrow, and discovery. Sharp social commentary of a country’s struggle to live up to its ideals, an honest portrayal of the strength of family, and the delicate blossoming of a young writer make this memoir in verse a gift to all who read it.”