Brown Girl Dreaming

by Jacqueline Woodson (2014)

Brown Girl Dreaming has it all.  An acclaimed and award-winning novelist for children and adults who has penned a memoir/novel that can be read and appreciated by a broad range of children and their families.  A book rich in personal detail and delectable, choice, unforgettable phrasing and memories.  All told through a series of elegantly and carefully wrought poems.  A novel in poems – filled with humor, pathos, doubt, fear, and discovery.

Jacqueline Davies tells her own story.  Growing up in South Carolina and then New York City, she paints the cultural picture of what it was like to grow up as a young African-American girl in these very different places.  Davies doesn’t emphasize history.  It is life seen through a child’s eyes – a growing child, an observant child, a child seeking to learn and understand all about the world around her.

It is a rich world filled with family members of different generations, home-made cooking, tables and parlors filled with conversation and hair care and books.  Young Jacqueline is a reader who wants to become a writer.  Like any child she is buffeted by the decisions of her family – parents separated by geography and a religious upbringing among Jehovah’s Witnesses which further separates her from her peers.

It will be all new to Middle School readers, seeing the world through Jacqueline’s curious eyes, understanding about biscuits and hair curlers, the stark differences between Greenville and Harlem, and the many different personas her cousins and grandparents presents.

A story told in verse also helps Middle School readers really attend to language, to choice, intentional, finely wrought, unforgettable phrasing; to descriptive details wedged into poems or offered in rhythmic series.  Students don’t have to love poetry to discover the joys and pleasures of discovering a story – its characters and the author’s hopes and dreams and challenges – told in poems.  They will find Woodson’s story not only accessible, but distilled and burnished.  It will both demand and provoke the kinds of exploring and explanatory conversations any Middle School wants.

Read Brown Girl Dreaming together.  Use it as a window into two American realms in the 1960s, into one girl’s odyssey of discovery and self-creation, and as a text that can also open up a new world of creative expression and storytelling (not unlike rap or hiphop) among your students.