'Brown Girl Dreaming' blends history and personal memories into lovely verse

Jacqueline Woodson's memoir-in-verse is filled with perfect tiny moments about family, about friends, and about writing and reading, and about following your dreams.

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, Penguin, 336 pp.

A memoir-in-verse done well – written by a woman who’s lived in remarkable times – invites readers to open pages and slip right in. Step inside and meet the family, the brothers and sister, the aunts, grandparents, and a best friend. Pull up a chair to the table or eavesdrop on the porch. Jacqueline Wood's memoir Brown Girl Dreaming is history and storytelling at their very best.

Born in Ohio with the stories of South Carolina already running “like rivers through my veins,” Woodson titles the first poem "February 12, 1963" – her birthdate as well as a momentous year in the civil rights movement. But although she’s a witness to the history and it’s interspersed throughout her elegant book, this is a personal narrative, full of youthful dreams and possibility.

The story begins with family discord.  “Name a girl Jack,” her father says, “and she can’t help but grow up strong.” Naming a girl for her father will cause people to think her parents are crazy, claims her mother. With a flair for writing and a hint of what’s ahead, she becomes Jacqueline and takes her place in a family of doctors and lawyers, athletes, scholars, homemakers and dayworkers.

Woodson’s memoir, suggested for ages 10 and up, moves from her birthplace in Ohio to South Carolina and eventually to Brooklyn. Poems from the South reflect what it was like see the world as a black child in a place men leave “in their one good suit, shoes/ spit shined” and women in “Sunday clothes,/ hatted and lipsticked and white gloved.” As we read of the time she spent living with her grandparents and the summers when she returned to South Carolina, the remarkable relationship between a young girl and her Southern grandfather makes for some of the most beautiful poetry and memories.

But there are many things to love here. The tiny poems sprinkled throughout, numbered and named “how to listen,” call out to be memorized or to inspire young readers to write their own. “What is your one dream,/ my friend Maria asks me./ Your one wish come true?” And this: “Even the silence/ has a story to tell you./ Just listen. Listen.”

Fortunately, the little girl’s wish did come true. Woodson would grow up to write stories that are cherished by readers of all ages. Because she finds poetry in everything from hair ribbons to John’s Bargain Store, from graffiti and Rikers Island to hair straightening and first grade, the story sings. The book is filled with perfect tiny moments about family, about friends, and about writing and reading and following your dreams.

Among the author’s many achievements, her books have been awarded three Newbery Honor medals and a Coretta Scott King Honor award. Brown Girl Dreaming has just been named a National Book Award finalist.

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