Brown Girl Dreaming

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by Jacqueline Woodson. Memoir. 336 pages. Grades 5-9.
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Review

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Brown Girl Dreaming just won the National Book Award and it's quite a gem. It's a book length memoir in verse of the author growing up in the sixties and seventies as well as some of her family history. Living in both South Carolina and then Brooklyn, New York we get to see the life of an African American family in the North and the South. Set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement there is a lot of history here.

The poems strike the strongest chord if students already have some background in the historical period. In context many of the poems are quite moving. Her family's take on being descended from Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings' son Thomas Woodson, is fascinating, "We had a head start . . . Thomas Woodson expected the best of us."

The author tells us about her free-born great-great-great-grandfather, her family traveling at night when she was a child because it was safer in the violent South, her sister lost in books, being a Jehovah's Witness, her aunt's death, living in the city, loving to tell stories while having a lot of trouble writing, the Black Power Movement, her passionate desire to become a writer, and much more in this poignant memoir.

Woodson chose verse, instead of prose, because it more accurately conveys the fragmented nature of memory. In fact each tiny poem-like chapter is a page or two on a single set of related memories. This is quite effective as glimpses of a life and yet the whole thing flows together beautifully and pulls the reader along.

The rhythm in the verse makes for a great read-aloud. Look online for clips of Woodson reading any of her books to get a sense of her cadence (Youtube has several). Woodson reads her writing aloud constantly as she writes and you can really see that read-aloud quality in all of her works.


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