Jacqueline Woodson uses verse in her autobiographical book, Brown Girl Dreaming, in order to create a fluid story that tells the story of her life during childhood and youth. Each chapter, written as a separate piece of poetry, captures details of various events that occurred during Woodson’s life, from her parents’ divorce to her grandmother raising her as a Jehovah’s Witness. Moving from state to state, created different chapters for Woodson’s childhood just as different chapters were created within the book. The book begins with sharing details about the first few moments of her life in Ohio with her mother, father, and two older siblings. As a result of a sequence of familial hardships, the family leaves their father in order to return to mother’s hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. There the family experiences a contrast between life in Ohio and life in the South. In this new life, she experiences the effects of the Civil Rights movement and its significance in achieving equality for African Americans, such as her family. During this time, her grandmother assimilates Jacqueline and her siblings into the religious world of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Eventually, she and her family leave the South in search for the many opportunities available to them in New York City. There she encounters true friendship, discovers her passion for writing, and strengthens her true identity.
Woodson touches on many areas of development as she grows up in the South and North. The themes she writes about in her autobiography can be used in the classroom to teach students valuable life lessons. As she grows older, Woodson learns to find her voice in her family, school, and community. She also learns to accept others’ differences, especially since she experiences many times what it feels like to be an outsider because of her race as well as her religion. Finally, Woodson learns how to listen. She learns to listen to the words, the sounds, the people, and the world around her. These “how to listen” poems were some of the strongest portions of the book and add an extra sense of wisdom to her story.
Brown Girl Dreaming is a story worthy of the numerous awards (2015 Coretta Scott King Award) that it has received. Although the content brings up issues of race, death, and more, the story’s style mirrors the psychological processing of these events as Woodson was experiencing them at those particular ages/ points in her life. She shares a story that truly reflects life and its journey, one that both children and adult alike can relate to. We recommend this book to those ages ten and beyond as its poetic style and content have depth that can transcend the ages. While ten-year olds might not understand all that the book presents, it still offers them lessons worth of learning if supported well within the classroom. As for the adult reader, it provides a reminder about the past and gives insight into one’s personal journey while growing up in the face of hardship.
-Jessica Lau and Danielle McKeiver