Published: 2014 by Penguin Books
Genres: Children's, Middle Grade, Poetry
Source: the publisher
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Even when my girls were little, we’d go down there,
my grandmother tells us. And people’d be marching.
The marching didn’t just start yesterday.
Police with those dogs, scared everybody
near to death. Just once
I let my girls march.
Brown Girl Dreaming is an autobiographical memoir in verse about the author’s childhood in the 1960s. Jacqueline spent time growing up in both the North and the South, and so we get to see some of the cultural differences between the two regions. This includes her perceptions of the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement, but it also includes simple and ordinary things like what the country smells like compared to New York City and the way people eat and talk and spend their time relaxing in both places. She feels at home in both and neither at the same time, which emerges as a constant theme throughout the story.
There are so many moments in the story that I connected with because they reminded me so much of my own childhood and what it felt like to be a kid. There was one poem in which Jacqueline talks about how her family was very strict about swearing, and so she talked differently from all of the neighborhood children because her mother wouldn’t let her say words like “butt” or “dumb”. My family was exactly the same way, and when she talks about kids trying to get her to just say a bad word and her being completely unable to do it even though her mother was nowhere nearby, I remembered so many similar occasions on the school bus where people tried (unsuccessfully) to make me do the same thing. Or there was the moment when Jacqueline became Jackie because she was having trouble with the cursive “q” and wanted to avoid the problem entirely.
Ms. Moskowitz stops me, says,
In cursive too, please. But the q in Jacqueline is too hard
so I write Jackie Woodson for the first time. Struggle
only a little bit with the k.
Is that what you want us to call you?
I want to say No, my name is Jacqueline
but I am scared of that cursive q, know
I may never be able to connect it to the c and u
so I nod even though
I am lying.
Woodson’s poetry is engaging and accessible. It’s the kind of book that should be given to children before they take a stab at Shakespeare or Byron or Frost, because Woodson’s poetry is rife with meaning and impossible not to love. When I was growing up, most of my classmates *hated* poetry, and that’s because they thought it was hard or obscure or so far from their own experiences that there was no point to it. Brown Girl Dreaming isn’t like that at all, and I loved it. I read the book in one sitting because I was unable to keep myself from reading the next chapter and seeing what happened next in Jacqueline’s life. Her vivid memories of childhood are filled with wonder and enchantment, combining a sense of innocence with the emerging knowledge of what’s going on in the adult world.
Brown Girl Dreaming is one of the most remarkable books I’ve read this year. I can’t recommend it highly enough.