Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

Title:  Brown Girl Dreaming
Author:  Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher:  Nancy Paulsen Books
Year: 2014
Pages: 336
Genre:  Memoir, Told in Verse
Themes:  Black History, Family, Racism, Civil Rights
Age Range:  5th Grade and Above

Summary:  from Goodreads
Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. 

I have loved all of Woodson's books, and this one is no exception.  Her prose always read more like poetry to me, so I was glad to see this book is told in verse.  Growing up in both the Jim Crow south and the Civil Rights era north, Woodson was in a unique position to witness racism and discrimination in both its over and covert incarnations.

While her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement and its affect on her daily life is central to the novel, at its heart this book is about a young girl with a complicated family, trying to figure out where she fits in the world.  Being of two worlds often made her feel like she never really belonged to either, being too country for the urban northerners and too city for her rural family.  Woodson points out the many ways she felt like the "other", and the subtle and not-so-subtle signifiers of her "otherness"-her speech patterns, her family configuration, her desire to write stories, despite not always being the best student in school.  Woodson speaks lovingly of her grandparents, who symbolize stability and permanence.  Her feelings about her mother and father are just as loving, but less grounded.  Her father is not a part of her life, her mother leaves to find work in the city, eventually pulling her and her siblings away from their grandparents' home.  And, of course, with aging grandparents come the sad reality of declining health and death, which deal a blow to the fragile ground upon which Woodson builds her sense of self.

I think that only the most mature, sophisticated fifth graders would be ready for this book, not because there is anything objectionable in it, but because I think the narrative structure and the sometimes oblique references to the events that shaped the Civil Rights movement would be lost on someone without sufficient experience to understand.  But this book, which won the National Book Award for Young Adult Fiction for 2014, is certainly accessible and appropriate for use in middle or high school, and is gorgeous and moving enough to speak to adult readers as well.