Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline, Woodson. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014. ISBN 9780399252518
Plot Summary: Jacqueline Woodson tells the story of her childhood in a novel full of verse; short poems with eloquent writing. Woodson grew up in both South Carolina and New York, trying to make both feel like home. The timeline is during the 1960s and 1970s, when Jim Crow Laws and Civil Rights are at their peak, and Woodson grows up in these circumstances. She tells the stories of her life, the good and the bad, to explain who she is and why she is that way. Throughout the book, we also get to learn of her love for writing, and how she used writing to find herself.
Critical Analysis: Reading a novel in verse is far different than reading any average novel or chapter book, and I was initially intimidated by the idea of reading it. Poetry is not something I am strong in reading, nor do I typically enjoy it, at least in past experience. After I began to read, however, it was clear that I would be able to fly through this book as the 'chapters' were all simply short poems that made up the entirety of the novel. I believe that this format is very interesting and inviting, and it was made even more interesting by the fact that this novel was an autobiography and allowed me to learn the true story of someone's life through verse.
A master of her trade, Woodson does a wonderful job of keeping a smooth yet interesting rhythm through the entirety of the book. One of the things that interested me the most as I read was the placement of words for emphasis. It is clear that Woodson separates certain statements to draw attention to them specifically, such as the following:
"I cannot write a word yet but at three,
I now know the letter J
love the way it curves into a hook
that I carefully top with a straight hat
the way my sister has taught me to do. Love
the sound of the letter and the promise
that one day this will be connected to a full name,
that I will be able to write
Brown Girl Dreaming, page 62
Punctuation is used sparingly throughout the book, and is only used when deliberate and necessary, at least for the author. Woodson cuts off sentences and lines very specifically as well. While the poems do not rhyme, the end words are clearly chosen for a reason. For instance, in the above piece the fifth line ends with the word "love" and the rest of the sentence carries on to the next sentence. I do believe this was completely intentional to draw more attention to the word and the emotion that Woodson was feeling about this specific detail in her life.
Like with the rhythm, there is sound, language, and imagery throughout the entirety of the novel. Onomatopoeia was evident in several locations, such as "the sizzle of the straightening comb" (p. 108). While there are other forms of figurative language included, I do believe that imagery is the one that is most evident and repeated. Woodson does a wonderful job of bringing lovely detail to the images and scenes that she wants her readers to imagine. Through the novel, I could picture the different places that she was, and how things looked. Even the minute details, such as the colors and conditions of the ribbons that Woodson and her sister wore in their hair.
The emotional impact, at least for myself personally, was quite significant. There was an array of emotions based on the different parts of the book. I felt thrilled with Woodson when she went to visit her grandparents, and lonely when she could not play with her neighbors. I felt the pain when she lost a loved one, and had to learn to thrive in a brand new place. The emotions were raw and natural, and made the novel so beautiful. I believe that all of the poems in the book worked incredibly well together to tell Woodson's story.
From the New York Times Book Review: "Ms. Woodson writes with a sure understanding of the thoughts of young people, offering a poetic, eloquent narrative that is not simply a story . . . but a mature exploration of grown-up issues and self-discovery.”
From School Library Journal: "The poems tie together the author’s personal experiences, shared memories, and understanding of the past to tease out the many forces and influences that contributed to her becoming a writer."
It would be a great connection piece to read other works by Woodson - specifically regular fiction, or perhaps another book in verse about a different topic. Students could compare how Woodson wrote about herself in Brown Girl Dreaming to how she writes about other, fictional characters in her other pieces.
Another valuable connection would be to use this book, or pieces of it, in a civil rights unit in a class. It could be done in reading class so that it is a cross curricular topic. Different pieces could be read to compare how different people experienced life during the same time period/era.