My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It seems pointless to write a review of a book that has been universally praised and received so many awards, but I couldn’t put Brown Girl Dreaming down without saying how much I loved it.
I first heard about this memoir written in verse when it was nominated for the National Book Award for Children’s literature, and again after Daniel Handler made an ass of himself when he directed a watermelon joke at Jaqueline Woodson. I finally bought it after Linda Holmes said Brown Girl Dreaming was one of the books that made her happy in 2014 on Pop Culture Happy Hour.
I’m not a huge fan of poetry. I don’t have anything against poetry, but it’s not a genre of literature that I gravitate towards; when I do, I tend to lean towards tried and true classics like Howl or Leaves of Grass.
I’ve listened to Jaqueline Woodson read the first poem of the Brown Girl Dreaming on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and I loved how the words rolled off her tongue. I personally wasn’t able to recreate the cadence of her voice as I read Brown Girl Dreaming on my own, and I often felt like I was reading it all wrong. That didn’t prevent me from enjoying her book however.
Brown Girl Dreaming is a perfect introduction to poetry if you want to explore verse but find yourself intimidated by it. Labelled as a children’s book, the stories and memories Woodson shares are more like Super 8 films, captured in one or two pages that manage to convey all the emotion of an epos.
There’s no plot per se, just memories, visions of the author’s past. It’s like Woodson is writing the stories as she’s remembering them. The poems have a lovely stream of conscious feel to them, and it’s easy to glide from one poem to another without noticing the time go by.
Race and the Civil Rights movement are front and center in the book, but this is really a story about your average little girl growing up in the South and then in Brooklyn; it’s about being a kid, playing on backyard swing sets, going to school and church, and living under the shadow of over-achieving siblings.
It’s important to note this is also the story of a single mother raising five children. Single black mothers are typically portrayed at their end of their ropes, struggling to keep their families together and the bill collectors at bay. You never get the sense of abject poverty from the Woodson’s descriptions of her childhood. The children in Brown Girl Dreaming seem to want for nothing, oblivious of fancy toys or big houses.
I personally identified with Jacqueline Woodson’s descriptions of struggling in school as she learned to read, and making up stories that suited her own narrative. Her descriptions of going to the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses also rung true to me (although I was raised Catholic).
My favourite poem in the book was because we’re witnesses. I read that poem about three or four times before I moved on to the next one. The poem has all the power of John Lennon’s Imagine. I’m sure I’ll go back to it often in the years to come, and quote it for friends.
Brown Girl Dreaming is already a classic, the kind of book you give to youngsters and adults alike. It’s a book that can be cherished and relied upon to get you through rough times. It’s not everyone’s childhood, but it is childhood as we like to remember it, with all it’s intricacies, family dramas, and subtle joys. It the kind of book makes you grateful for the life you have, however modest it may be.
If you liked Brown Girl Dreaming I would also recommend The House on Mango Street.