Jacqueline Woodson (2014). Brown Girl Dreaming. New York, NY: Puffin Books.
Jacqueline Woodson’s verse memoir of her childhood is a meaningful, accessible contribution to the literature centered on American history, social justice, and Black activism, but its radiant descriptions and contemplative, rich narrative voice will also draw readers of poetry and memoir.
The most vital thing in this book is the rich simplicity of its poetic voice. Woodson renders exquisitely the mundane details of the 1960s South—lemon chiffon ice cream with her grandfather, gardens producing peaches, peas and tomatoes, and “Whites Only” signs covered in ghostly layers of paint which still allowed the words to be seen. Woodson moves forward in the footsteps of earlier poets of Brooklyn and the South like Nikki Giovanni’s Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978). Contemporary coming-of-age novels in verse like The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo also connect to Woodson’s form.
Woodson draws connections between small moments and large ones: the descriptions of her brother’s allergies to Southern pollen recall her father’s remarks about the South’s unlivability. Her mother hits her brother with a switch for saying “ain’t”, scared that a change in dialect will result in her children’s subordination. Since the publication of Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in 1975, there have been many stunning, vital books which engage with the racism of the white South and target a young audience. Other recent works like Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper and One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia bring Black history to young audiences; these books pair well with Brown Girl Dreaming. Nonfiction works like March by John Lewis relate stories of the same period to schools and classrooms where a polarized political climate has left conversations about race in America more vital than ever. YA like America Street by Ibi Zoboi or Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson are other novels which engage with questions of race, activism, and identity. The verse historical novel for children centered on identity, American history and displacement can also be found in Thanhha Lai’s Vietnam War story Inside Out and Back Again.
Because the story contained is Woodson’s own life, the book is intimately connected to memoirs by other Black women poets: June Jordan’s Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood, Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of my Name or Gemini by Nikki Giovanni are places that older readers could look to for expanded insights, points of connection, or places to engage.