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.