The Best Children's Books of 2014: A List of Lists and Awards
My Favorite Books of 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming

9780399252518HI usually have a couple of books going at once, and I love it when they talk to each other.

 

Virginia Woolf asks, in Hours in a Library, a series of questions about contemporary authors’ works, issues that make their work appeal to us as much as the classics. “...What do they see of the surrounding world, and what is the dream that fills the spaces of their active lives? They tell us all these things in their books.”

 

It’s as if Woolf knew I was reading the memoir Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House, 2014), a children’s title by Jacqueline Woodson. Her dream, from childhood on, was to be a writer. Indeed, she is the author of many books for kids, including Locomotion, Each Kindness, After Tupac and D Foster, and Pecan Pie Baby. Brown Girl Dreaming takes readers about up to Woodson’s adolescence.

 

Born in the mid-sixties, Jacqueline Woodson, an African American, spends her youngest years in Ohio and a still-segregated South Carolina (“I am born as the South explodes,” she writes), the latter with her loving maternal grandparents. She later moves with her mother and her siblings to Brooklyn. Told in blank verse, the memoir is very much a middle-grade book, and grown-ups will find plenty to enjoy, too. NPR’s Terry Gross complemented Woodson for using poems to convey the story, which allows space around the words and makes the book easy to read. I finished the book in one sitting!

 

Children will relate to young Jackie's loving family, her best friend, childhood games, and her love of pop music. Kids may be surprised at—and reassured by—the National Book Award-winning author’s struggles at school, where she took a long time to learn to read and write because of an unnamed learning difference (“the words twist/twirl across the page”). If, like me, they are not Jehovah’s Witnesses, they’ll learn a little something about that religion; Woodson’s grandmother, an ardent believer, got the grandkids involved. (“I thought I was saving lives,” Woodson told Terry Gross.) Above all, the transformative power of words and stories shines through.

 

One of my favorite passages is the poem “On the Bus to Dannemora.” Jackie and members of her family are travelling upstate, from NYC, to visit a favorite uncle in prison. Needless to say, it’s a long, draining trip. The poem, however, takes its cues from the beckoning universalism of the seventies hit “Love Train”; bits of the O’Jays’ lyrics weave through a daydream Jackie has. As the scenery flashes by, she imagines the bus occupants and their loved ones are instead aboard “a whole train filled/with love and now the people on it/aren’t in prison but are free to dance/and sing and hug their families whenever they want.” We readers feel Jackie’s heartbreak, and we sense her spirit and strength, too.

 

That’s just what Jacqueline Woodson does in Brown Girl Dreaming: she turns a few hours of our day—the time it takes to read her book—into an unforgettable journey.

 

Brown Girl Dreaming, a strong contender for the 2015 Newbery Medal, won the 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

Comments

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I haven't yet received my copy of this book - it helps if you stop giving them away the minute they hit your house, but it is a good book for adults and teens for the holiday - and can't wait to read it, based on all of the interviews and reviews. I hadn't realized that she was a Witness until that Terry Gross interview, and was surprised. She's kind of a deep, quiet author - and I believe that so much of our pasts shape us and our writing that now I will look for all the influences she mentions. Unlike so many writers, she's not an easy one to get to know, so I'm so pleased for her to win this award so she's kind of forced more into the limelight (though I hope it isn't as excruciating as that sounds).

Tanita, thanks so much for your comments. Let me know when you read the book; I'd love to know what you think. Terry Gross did a good job of drawing JW out; I can hear the deep, quiet qualities, too, in her work. I've still been thinking about the book and its themes. What makes an author? What makes her choose the subjects she does? And, really, "what makes an author?" is "What makes a person?" We just see more of it with authors because they (y'all!) write it down. Reading Brown Girl Dreaming, I felt like I could see the origins of Pecan Pie Baby, just to name one of the books.

Thank you, Susan!

Can't wait, Mary!

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