Although Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson recently won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and its publisher says it is for ages 10 and up, I chose not to categorize it that way in this review because it is a beautiful, lyrical memoir in verse that will be enjoyed by all ages, especially adults. Let me say up front that I am not normally a fan of poetry in any form, but this was one of the best books I’ve read (listened to) all year.
Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir, told in short verses, of its author’s childhood, from birth through the start of adolescence, following her from Ohio to South Carolina to Brooklyn. Each titled poem highlights one particular aspect of Jacqueline’s life, and through these brief snapshots in time, a whole, colorful, compelling picture emerges. What makes this unique memoir even more interesting is the way that Woodson weaves details of what’s going on in the world into the verses, so that as we watch little Jackie grow up, we are also witnessing our country growing and maturing.
Here’s the start of the first verse, about her birth:
february 12, 1963I am born on a Tuesday at University HospitalColumbus, Ohio,USA –a country caughtbetween Black and WhiteI am born not long from the timeor far from the placewheremy great-great grandparentsworked the deep rich landunfreedawn till duskunpaiddrank cool water from scooped-out gourdslooked up and followedthe sky’s mirrored constellationto freedom.
You can see just in that short example how Woodson can take an event as ordinary as the birth of a new baby against the backdrop of history and make it sound graceful and beautiful. As a writer myself, I was amazed by the way she told a complete story through such small and brief details. In fact, her writing inspired me to try the same sort of approach in my own personal essay writing. The story unfolds in this way, as we watch her grow from a tiny baby to an energetic little girl to a budding writer, with the details of the time and places highlighted along the way.
That first verse is a page and a half long. Others are just a few lines, like this one:
how to listen #1Somewhere in my braineach laugh, tear and lullabybecomes memory.
I listened to this book on audio, read by the author, and was entranced by her lovely voice reading the details of her life in such a lyrical way. However, I was also eager to see the verses on the page, to see how they were laid out, and to copy down some beautiful quotes that I wanted to remember, so I also requested a hard copy from the library and pored over that as well. It is a quick read, but you will want to linger over it and savor every word (plus, there are some family photos in the back!).
Don’t miss this book. Its National Book Award was well deserved, and it’s on the top of my list of favorites from recent years. Brown Girl Dreaming is the unique and engaging story of both a girl and a nation, and I highly recommend both the audio version and the book itself. I can’t wait to read more of Jacqueline Woodson’s work.
320 pages, Nancy Paulsen Books (imprint of Penguin Group)
Video of Jacqueline Woodson accepting the National Book Award:
You can also listen to an audio excerpt at the Amazon link below: