Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming is a poet’s memoir of self-discovery while growing up in Ohio, South Carolina, and Brooklyn, NY. I say a “poet’s memoir” because the story is told entirely in verse, adding a layer of lyricism to the story and an interesting take on an ever-expanding Middle-Grade / Young Adult book market.
The story itself is quite lovely, and simple enough for those with whom its marketed (I think middle-grade is ages 9 to 11?) to understand, even when Woodson is dealing with a subject as complicated as race. (The opening verse dated February 12, 1963, “I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital / Columbus, Ohio / USA–/ a country caught / between Black and White.”)
In elegant verse, Woodson tells of the idiosyncrasies of her big, loving family—an early childhood set in Ohio an absent father and a mother who leaves for New York before her children in order to secure a job and a life there, an incredibly loving set of grandparents in the south, an upbringing in the Jehovah’s Witness faith, a bookish older sister, a quiet older brother, and a younger brother who quite literally can’t stop himself from eating the paint off of the walls. A life lived in three places, shaping Woodson into the woman she becomes.
The story is moving and holds a childlike innocence throughout its pages, even with a subtle weight of worldly happenings on the periphery. (When the family visits Woodson’s mother’s only brother, Uncle Robert, “he is not / Robert. His afro is gone now, / shaved to a black shadow on his perfect skull. / His eyebrows are thicker than I remember, dipping down / in a newer, sadder way. Even when he smiles, / opens his arms / to hug all of us at once, the bit I catch of it, before / jumping into his huge, is a half smile, caught / and trapped inside a newer, sadder / uncle.”
Woodson as a young girl stands as a much stronger example of girlhood than some other female protagonists in books meant for younger audiences, and I can only hope her story does catch on for the audience it is meant to engage (so far, my understanding has been plenty of oohs and aahs from adults, but then again, I have pretty much zero interactions with anyone under the age of 25 in my daily interactions). The story ends on a very wholesome yet not fantasy-world message that worked for me, and I hope would be a nice takeaway for a young person. “When there many worlds / you can choose the one / you walk into each day”
My take? This has been my first romp into reading a story meant for a younger audience since I read each of the Harry Potter books, but I found it enjoyable even as an adult. I celebrate women writing strong female protagonists (even when they are the protagonist), and I’m always happy to see genre mixing as a new, interesting way to tell a story.
She’s coming to get us, my sister says again,
our big yellow kitchen. Then running her hand
over the hardwood table
as though she’s already gone
and trying to remember this.