I’m a sucker for award-winning, young-adult novels. So, I can’t remember how it came to be there now, but it’s not too surprising that I had Brown Girl Dreaming (2014) by Jacqueline Woodson on my wait list at the library. From my diligent research before borrowing this book [reading the title], I assumed that it was the coming-of-age story of a young, black girl. On the one hand, I was right,Brown Girl Dreaming is a coming-of-age story. However, where I was expecting a fictional novel; this turned out to be a collection of autobiographical, narrative poems.
My mindset for reading poetry is very different than for reading novels. I generally have to be more patient with poetry, taking my time and soaking up the emotions, while novels feel more driven with story. I’m afraid I came to this book with the wrong mindset and sometimes got a little frustrated by the lack of details and plot. It took me an embarassingly long time to realize that what I was reading was not what I was expecting and appreciate it for what it was.
Woodson’s poems follow the chronology of her early life, following her birth in Ohio, her move with her mother to her Grandparent’s home in South Carolina, and then a later move to Brooklyn. Each poem is a short, discrete chapter in Woodson’s life, and she writes clearly and memorably. I found myself highlighting a number of lines as I read, appreciating the language. Woodson focuses a lot on her family and best friend, obviously incredibly meaningful relationships in her life.
Tomboy becomes my new name.
My walk, my mother says,
reminds her of my father.
When I move long-legged and fast away from her
she remembers him. (211)
There are also a number of poems showing the difficulty Woodson had with reading and doing well in school, even as she hungered to become a writer.
Even though so many people think my sister and I
are twins, I am the other Woodson, following behind her each year…
until one day, they walk into the classroom, almost call me Odel–then stop
remember that I am the other Woodson
and begin searching for brilliance
at another desk. (219)
Finally, Woodson also touches on racial issues, growing up in the years directly after the end of legal segregation.
It’s hard not to see the moment–
my grandmother in her Sunday clothes, a hat
with a flower pinned to it
neatly on her head, her patent-leather purse,
between her gloved hands–waiting quietly
long past her turn. (238)
Everyone knows where they belong here.
It’s not Greenville
but it’s not diamond sidewalks either (305)
There were many other moments that moved me, and I wanted to take out a couple more quotes. I found, however, that these stories and poems work best in whole and intertwined within the entire book. One moment that almost made me cry because it was so sweet was when Jackie’s best friend, Maria, casually mentions that Jackie is family to her. This passage is only so moving because of the previous poems describing their friendship as well as Jackie’s insecurity when a third friend joins the mix. Taking out a little snippet just doesn’t do it justice.
While reading this book, I sometimes got a little frustrated, wanting more detail and more of a story, but that’s primarily a problem caused by my ignorant expectations. Looking back, Woodson’s writing was memorable and moving.
Find the rest of my reviews on my blog.