- Jacqueline Woodson’s 2014 poetic memoir Brown Girl Dreaming won a slew of awards: a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Coretta Scott King Award, a Newbery Honor, an NAACP Image Award, just to name a few. It is the beautifully told story of Woodson’s childhood, of the people and environments that formed both her and her dream of becoming a writer. It also offers glimpses into the civil rights movement and the experience of racism through the eyes of a child who witnessed it and the ears of a child who heard her family’s stories. Young readers will identify with Woodson’s quest to find what makes her special, to find her identity and achieve her dream. While it does not shy away from hard realities, it is overall an uplifting story of perseverance and the powerful love of family.
Woodson starts with her birth in Columbus, Ohio in 1963, the third of Mary and Jack Woodson’s three children. Woodson provides a brief background of both sides of the family, which is surprisingly rich for its brevity. Jack’s family is of the north, and Mary’s is of the south, of Greenville, SC, to be precise. Woodson writes of visiting her mother’s parents in the summers and then moving to Greenville when Jack and Mary divorced. Greenville is “home” to Jackie, and her grandparents were like parents, especially when Mary moved to New York to work. It is in Greenville that Jackie’s consciousness develops as she grows up. While her older sister Odella has her nose buried deep in books, Jackie is attuned to nature — its sights, smells and sounds. She is also fascinated by storytelling and listens enrapt as Odella reads to her from Winnie the Pooh, Hans Brinker, etc.
Jackie is also tuned in to the stories around her. Greenville in the 1960s was in the throes of the civil rights movement. Young people were organizing to sit at lunch counters and engage in various forms of passive resistance that were often met with police violence. Jackie’s grandfather was a foreman at a printing press but because he was a black man, was not afforded the same respect a white man in his position would have enjoyed. Her grandmother, like many other women of the neighborhood, rode in the back of the bus across town to clean the houses of white people who threatened to fire them if they found out they were involved in the civil rights movement. One neighbor found a way to beat this system by hosting organizers in her home and feeding them so they could do the work of the movement. Mary Irby and her cousins got involved, too. Woodson’s way of revealing this information is done in a clever and seamless manner. As a child, she had a peripheral sort of knowledge of these events, and she intersperses them along with memories of her everyday life of swings, playing with her siblings, the smell of wet grass and pine, the lullaby of crickets, the sweet delight of lemon chiffon ice cream, the sound of her grandfather’s singing as he walked home down the road, and her grandmother raising the children to be Jehovah’s Witnesses.
After a few years in Greenville, Jackie’s mother is ready to move the family up to New York, to Brooklyn and their new little brother. The move is hard for them and for their grandparents, and Brooklyn seems gray and drab and rainy. But it is there that Jackie will first attend school and learn to write letters, which thrills her no end. She loves the school, its look and smell, the kind teachers. In Brooklyn, Jackie makes her first best (and lifelong) friend Maria. She plays outside in the street with her older brother Hope and the other kids, she visits the library and gets to see her Uncle Robert. But interspersed with these joys are hardships: deaths in the family, the illness of little brother Roman, the incarceration of her uncle, and learning that she is not brilliant like her gifted sister Odella or a talented singer like Hope. In fact, she reads rather slowly and sings off-key. Jackie loves stories though; she loves to tell them and struggles to write them until she figures out a way to teach herself to do it. Jackie has an amazing memory as well as imagination, and with her notebook in hand, she starts to write out song lyrics from the radio and later her poems. One day in fourth grade, she stuns her classmates by reciting from memory the Oscar Wilde story of The Selfish Giant. When they ask her how she does it, she says,
How can I explain to anyone that stories
Are like air to me,
I breathe them in and let them out
Over and over again.
Jackie is discovering what makes her special, and she treasures it. Her most fervent wish, whenever opportunities arise (on a star, a dandelion, an eyelash) is to become a writer. The day her teacher, upon reading her work, tells her that she is a writer, Jackie is empowered. Not only does her voice grow stronger as she reads aloud, but her belief in herself and her ability blooms.
This memoir focuses on Woodson’s desire to write, her passion and desire for it from early childhood, and the power of words is a theme throughout the work. When her grandfather says Jackie is his favorite, when he asks for her stories, when her grandmother tells her she is just like him, when the teacher tells her she is a writer — these words are empowering and a reminder that all children should be so affirmed. Those words matter and are necessary, particularly for children. Moreover, words are our link to memory — to our history and our family, to all that we love. As Woodson writes:
I am thinking if I can hold on to the memory of this song
Get home and write it down, then it will happen,
I’ll be a writer. I’ll be able to hold on to
Each moment, each memory
Near the end of Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson recalls talk of revolution in her childhood in the 1970s. She also remembers the local park’s merry-go-round and considers the two. Just as the ride revolves around, so revolutions are always being made somewhere, and we are all part of the ride for a short time. Jackie sees the racism that exists where she lives, that the whites have left the neighborhood and there are streets you don’t cross, but she also sees Angela Davis and the Black Panthers on TV and Shirley Chisholm running for president. She is empowered by their words and actions, and by her family’s love and her own talent.
My name is Jacqueline Woodson
And I am ready for the ride.
In the author’s note at the end, Woodson writes that she is sometimes asked if she thinks she has had a hard life. She chooses words like “complicated, rich, ordinary and amazing” to describe it and offers this:
I know that I was lucky enough to be born during a time when the world was changing like crazy — and that I was a part of that change. I know that I was and continue to be loved.
It is an uplifting and timely message to parents trying to raise children during these tumultuous times. The world is always in revolution, and our job is to use our words to support the next riders with love and feed their confidence.
Thanks to Cannonballer Bonnie for sending this to me as part of the 2016 holiday exchange! I am looking forward to sharing it with my niece’s daughters.