Monday, August 10, 2015

Book Review: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming has racked up an impressive list of awards since its release last summer - National Book Award, Coretta Scott King Award, Newbery Honor Medal, to name a few - and all well deserved.

This middle grade memoir is written in flowing free verse and follows the author's childhood growing up between South Carolina and New York. An absent father, a long-distance mother, a religious grandmother, a cheerful aunt, a loving and independent grandfather, friends, teachers, siblings, all come to life in few, carefully chosen words. Tragedy, too, is simply and movingly expressed. The aunt who dies unexpectedly from a fall, the brother stunted mentally and physically by exposure to lead, the inevitable decline of loved ones due to old age. Events from the wider world creep in as well, filtered through a child's memory. She describes hearing about marching on the radio, avoiding downtown because of sit-ins, Black Panthers and Angela Davis.

Early in the book Jacqueline directly addresses the unreliability of memory - an interesting choice for a memoir - with the story of her birth.
You were born in the morning, Grandma Georgiana said.
I remember the sound of the birds...
You came in the late afternoon, my mother said.
Two days after I turned twenty-two.Your father was at work.Took a rush hour bustryingto get to you. Butby the time he arrived,you were already here...
You're the one that was born near night, my father says.
When I saw you, I said, She's the unlucky onecome out looking just like her daddy...
My time of birth wasn't listed
on the certificate, then got lost again
amid other people's bad memory.
Often times, small moments in childhood take on a disproportional influence on our future selves. Living with her grandmother in South Carolina, Jacqueline remembers getting on the bus and her grandmother walking them to the back, even after the laws changed.
I look around and see the ones
who walk straight to the back. See
The ones who take a seat up front, daring
anyone to make them move. And know
this is who I want to be. Not scared
like that. Brave
like that.
Constant tension runs through the book in the differences between Jacqueline's life in the South with her grandparents and her life in the North with her mother, between black and white, between the various choices people make, between her religious upbringing with her Jehovah's Witness grandmother and her love for her non-religious grandfather, whom she calls "daddy".
Jehovah's Witnesses believe
that everyone who doesn't follow
God's word will be destroyed in a great battle called
Armageddon. And when the battle is done
there will be a fresh new world
a nicer more peaceful world. 
But I want the world where my daddy is
and don't know why
anybody's God would make me
have to choose.
Some of my favorite sections show Jacqueline developing as a writer. Her awakening wonder at the moment she realizes she is able to write her full name - "Letters becoming words, words gathering meanings, becoming / thoughts outside my head" - is palpable and continues despite the skepticism of others.
When I write the first words
Wings of a butterfly whisper...
no one believe a whole book could ever come
from something as simple as
butterflies that don't even, my brother says,
live that long.
But on paper, things can live forever.
On paper, a butterfly
never dies.
An influential teacher boosts her confidence with three words.
You're a writer, Ms. Vivo says,
her gray eyes bright behind
thin wire frames. Her smile bigger than anything
so I smile back, happy to hear these words
from a teacher's mouth.
The book ends with two poems, "what i believe" and "each world", that may just be the best offerings within the 320 extraordinary pages. I don't want to spoil the impact those last powerful pages will have on your when you read them, but one brief excerpt encapsulates the optimism and hope of this childhood memoir:
I believe in God and evolution.
I believe in the Bible and the Qur'an.
I believe in Christmas and the New World.
I believe that there is good in each of us
no matter who we are or what we believe in...

Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson
ISBN: 9780399252518
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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