Jacqueline Woodson was unknown to me, though she is a prolific writer, having already published 30 books and been shortlisted this year for the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her lasting contribution to children’s literature.
I saw it mentioned on twitter, as it recently won a National Book award in the US and it has the most beautiful, striking cover and when I read that it is a memoir of the author’s childhood, written in free verse, I just knew I had to read it. And I’m not the only one, of the seventeen books US President, Barack Obama bought on a recent book buying spree with his two daughters, this book was sitting on the top of the pile.
Brown Girl Dreaming is an easy reading collection of anecdotes in free verse, that tell of Woodson’s childhood growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn , New York, not so much focused on herself, she paints a picture with words of all those around her, their inclinations and beliefs, the daily rituals that made up the ambiance within which she spent her early years.
She has something of both the North and South in her, moving comfortably between the two and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She collects aspects of her childhood that have stayed with her and that shaped who she is today and she discovers old stories that fill out her experience and deepen her roots and sense of belonging.
“When we ask our mother how long we’ll be here,
sometimes she says for a while and sometimes
she tells us not to ask anymore
because she doesn’t know how long we’ll stay
in the house where she grew up
on the land she’s always known.”
After her mother leaves her husband and Ohio behind, bringing three small children to her own childhood home, the children are drawn into their Grandmother’s ways, including regular attendance at the Kingdom Hall, where they become part of a Jehovah Witnesses community, which has a significant impact on their upbringing and keeps them out of trouble, though it also has its consequences and is something the author will eventually leave behind.
has gone away.
And now coming back home
isn’t really coming back home
Jacqueline, named after her father who wanted her to be Jack, observes the individual brilliance of each of her siblings, she acknowledges their talent and discovers her own, a love of words and despite the challenges they confront her with, she never loses sight of her dream to be a writer and to catch those words that sometimes eluded her on the page.
“I am not gifted. When I read, the words twist
Twirl across the page.
When they settle, it is too late.
The class has already moved on.
I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them
Then blow gently,
Watch them float
Right out of my hands”
I couldn’t help but recall the Cuban writer Margarita Engle’s exceptional The Wild Book, not just because it too is a brilliant volume of prose poetry written for both a young and adult audience, but because its subject also includes a child with a love and fear of words.
Brown Girl Dreaming is a beautiful book and a compassionate collection of childhood, a celebration of all the author’s family and n its writing, it enabled her to reconnect with many of those whom she hadn’t seen for years and in doing so, to learn of and preserve more of the family’s stories that had been within the family for generations.
Her poems are like a giant tapestry and the members of her family, her neighbourhood and friends make up the complex colours and patterns, infused with story, emotion, excitement and foreboding, the fabric of her childhood.
By the time you get to the end, you feel like you know them all and to complete the experience the author has shared her collection of black and white family photos.