Book review: Brown Girl Dreaming

How did I not know that Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming was a book in verse?!

Highly awarded, this memoir (in verse!) describes the author’s childhood in the 1960’s and ’70s in Iowa, South Carolina, and Brooklyn. Woodson paints portraits of places and people with spare-yet-lush poetic language. Each poem could stand alone, some moreso than others. Together, they offer a prismatic collection of memories crafted into a gorgeous merging of form and subject.

Beginning with the day she is born, Woodson introduces a marvelous voice: an adult Jacqueline who knows things the infant Jacqueline couldn’t know. Yet later poems are imbued with a childlike quality that allows the reader to hear the young Jacqueline’s adoration of her grandfather, confusion at moving from her beloved South Carolina, and wonder at her ability to tell, and later write, the stories that pour out of her.

Born in Iowa to a mother who misses her family in South Carolina and a father who can trace his family’s heritage to a son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Woodson sets her narrative firmly in a historical continuum. The second poem describes Martin Luther King, Jr., planning his march in Birmingham, John F. Kennedy as president, and Malcolm X “standing on a soapbox / talking about revolution.”

Without going into much grown-up detail–the narrative stays close to what the child Jacqueline knows and experiences–Jacqueline’s mother leaves her father and takes the three children to South Carolina to live with their grandparents. In a big house in a small town, their grandfather–who the children soon call Daddy–is a supervisor at a printing press who loves to garden and their grandmother teaches part time and takes on “daywork” cleaning white people’s houses.

The Civil Rights movement is a constant. In “south carolina at war,” young Jacqueline describes “teenagers…sitting / where brown people still aren’t allowed to sit / and getting carried out, their bodies limp, / their faces calm.” In another poem, their mother participates in “the training,” where demonstrators learn nonviolent techniques:

How to sit at counters and be cursed at

without cursing back, have food and drinks poured

over them without standing up and hurting someone.

Even the teenagers

get trained to sit tall, not cry, swallow back fear.

Little Jacqueline absorbs the quiet determination and bravery of her family and community as she learns to write her name and have her hair pressed in her grandmother’s kitchen. Woodson balances a child’s preoccupations with the grown-up world’s slow progress, creating a textured narrative that works on multiple levels.

When Jacqueline’s mother leaves for New York, where an aunt and other family lives, the children ache for her return while reveling in their grandparents’ love. Returning from her second trip with a new baby brother in tow, the mother and four children move to New York, eventually settling in Brooklyn near an aunt, an uncle, and friends from South Carolina. Still, the children feel torn between worlds: North and South, urban and rural, parent and grandparents.

Bit by bit, Jacqueline finds her talent despite feeling overshadowed by her brilliant older sister and brother and “the new baby.” Although sad events take place, Woodson handles them with tenderness and gentle honesty, never getting too deeply into the world that the adults must be experiencing yet remaining clear-eyed. This child-focus makes for a YA-appropriate portrayal of a girl coming of age surrounded by a loving family in a time of tremendous change.

A portrait of the artist as a young girl, inspirational for all ages.

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