“I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them/
then blow gently,
watch them float
right out of my hands.”
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is an oration to the art of writing, the idea that writing is something inherent and must be done because stories will not just tighten around us like a belt, they will nag until they are told. Brown Girl Dreaming is a seance to the old south, the South that had rules and regulations that were never discussed over polite dinner conversation, but posted like shouts over bathrooms, water fountains, bus seats left written-wordless. And it is original in that it is a voice to the old (south) house through the eyes of a child that is now old enough to understand her childish notions.
“I do not know yet
how sometimes the earth makes a promise
it can never keep. Tobacco fields
lay fallow, crops picked clean.
My grandfather coughs again
and the earth waits
for what and who it will get in return.”
I just don’t know what to say about this book. It’s a perfect time capsule of childhood seeded in history. We are living in history every moment of our life, even if it’s not necessarily happening to us personally (or it doesn’t feel that way). Right now, I feel like I’m living the debate for marriage equality (which I believe in all equality in all ways), but I’m watching the treatment of LGBTQ people be questioned, be acknowledged, and be studied for understanding.
In Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson shows the juxtaposition between Greenville, South Carolina, living with her grandparents who had a heavy hand in raising her, and New York where her mother kept her and her siblings until summer time. She not only captures my current south extraordinarily; honeysuckles for taste, door-to-door ‘good news’, people who are the salt of the earth, and dusk porch talk, but she also credits the south with deep racism that remained long after the law accepted equality. For instance, she tells stories about riding in the back of the bus with her mother, and only riding at night, swiftly through the expanse of crops to the city of “looking up.”
At one point in the story, she captures my childhood of lying and storytelling so well that I stopped reading and tapped my boyfriend, “This, this here, this captures how I felt as a child, this is it. This book, it has me.”
“I am not smart like Dell so I watch her press
the silver moons into her ears
I say, I know a girl ten times as smarter than her. She gets diamonds every time she gets a hundred on a test.
And Robert looks at me, his dark eyes smiling, asks
Is that something you made up? Or something real?
In my own head,
it’s real as anything.
In my head
all kinds of people are doing all kinds of things.
I want to tell him this, that
the world we’re living in right here in Bushwick isn’t
the only place.”
My mom tells stories about my childhood lies. I lied compulsively until seventh grade when I learned that you can’t lie or you get kicked out of the lunch table with all the popular girls, and their blonde highlights, and cheerleading pleats. Until then, I made up all kinds of things – where my siblings were going to college (had they even?), why I needed a little bit more money, where Toe Jam comes from, I probably could have catfished on Myspace before cat fishing was even an MTV thing. I was intense. It’s because I had stories, and they wounded me from living in a reality where regular everyday just didn’t seem as wonderful as the things I could make seem true. This is the same for Woodson. She spoke untruths because she wanted to write the truths for characters.
And she did.
She wrote the truth of the South in a middle grades, National Award Winner. I would pay to have this book printed for every single student I’ve taught the last three years. It’s pure magic in that it tells a story that is so electrifying, but in the voice of a child, and in the form of poetry. It takes all the scare out of poetry. It has meaning, it has rhythm, it has purpose, but it doesn’t cause fear over whether or not the reader will be able to understand.
Woodson’s poetics work so well. There are clear shifts in most of the poem sequences, and there are repetitive smaller poems (How to Listen series) throughout the book that remind the reader of Woodson’s lessons for herself, and her reader, and the future. I’m amazed at what she was able to do in this book and I’m so excited about the future of young adult publishing after reading this. Sometimes I don’t pursue young adult literature because I feel that it can be “dumbed down” when it shouldn’t be. It should be just as well-written and meaningful as adult fiction is, but that’s not always the case. With Woodson’s collection of moment-poems in her childhood, I am confident that young adults can attach to this narrator, her story, and the story of their history through her child’s eyes.
This is a beautiful, and fresh, telling of the Southern register in history, as well as the classic tale of coming of age for a girl who isn’t sure who or what she wants to, or should be. I know that that is a concept that crosses all races, all genders, all sexualities, and all cultures. Who will we be? And when will we get there? This story answers that question in one of the best ways that I’ve seen. Be you, and arrest any idea that goes against that.