Although award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson was born in Ohio, her earliest memories are of living in her maternal grandparents’ house in Greenville, South Carolina, after her parents separated. Growing up in the segregated south in the 1960s was difficult, but her grandparents surrounded them with so much love that young Jackie’s childhood was warm and solid. There were grown-up situations that the children didn’t understand, and she chafed under her grandmother’s strict Jehovah’s Witness beliefs, but once she discovered the written word, Jacqueline had a way to communicate and to create meaning in her world. She was writing poems and putting collections together when she was still a little girl.
As I wrote in this blog in June, I have long been a fan of Jacqueline Woodson, who spoke about this book at School Library Journal’s “Day of Dialogue.” She says that her stories come to her in verse, with air where the white space should be. This lovely memoir of her childhood is written in verse, sometimes with formal poetic structure, and sometimes in free verse. Her beautiful poem about the library’s place in her life was heartwarming to this children’s librarian. Although there was some sorrow in her childhood and she was never wealthy, Woodson writes with a child’s perspective, which can be achingly sad, but always with an innocent belief that everything would be better as soon as the grown-ups solved a few problems.
Later, her mother moved with her children to Brooklyn, and Jacqueline met her best friend, Maria. Now that she was older, she was more attuned to the social changes in the country, and began to question both the laws in her country and the faith of her family. In her mini-rebellion, she and Maria even listened to music that her family wouldn’t like. If I had a quibble with the book, it would be that this sea change in her thinking was rushed. After a long time of describing her early childhood and her years with her grandparents, it seems that in just a few pages we go from Sly and the Family Stone to Angela Davis to Black Panthers to her Uncle Robert becoming a Muslim, and then suddenly we get a page with a list of everything she believes—or does not believe—today. It almost seems like a different book, and it made me wonder if her editor wanted her to cut that part so that the book would fit better into the children’s section instead of the teen section. That is just my surmise, however.
Overall, this memoir, which was a National Book Award finalist and is certainly in the running for a Newbery Award, glows with the love of her family and the passion of a young girl who discovers her gift for writing. Recommended for everyone from nine to ninety.
Update! Brown Girl Dreaming won the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Congratulations, Ms. Woodson!
Disclaimer: I read a signed galley of this book, obtained from the author. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.