It seems like every year there are one or two middle grade books upon which everyone agrees. Last year, Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck received five starred reviews, as did Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven and Holly Black’s Doll Bones. The year before that, R. J. Palacio’s Wonder was on everyone’s lips. This year, that honor seems to going to Jacqueline Woodson’s autobiography-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming. And it couldn’t happen to a more deserving book.
Starting from Part I, “i am born”, Woodson follows the trajectory of her life from Ohio to North Carolina and up to New York during a tumultuous and watershed time in American history. In spare but very affecting verse, she writes about her father, whom as a child she did not really remember, her mother, her grandparents and especially her siblings.
2014 has been a very good year for middle grade works in verse, seeing several outstanding examples, including Andrea Davis Pinkey’s The Red Pencil, Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover and Skila Brown’s Caminar. The past few years have brought more prominence to the genre, with the Newbery Medal going to Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan in 2013 and a Newbery honor to Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again in 2012. Many pundits agree that Brown Girl Dreaming is the frontrunner for the 2015 Newbery Award.
Woodson’s verse is deceptively simple. Free verse, with the occasional haiku thrown in, Woodson uses language to evoke the feelings, memories, sounds and smells of her childhood. “The crickets/ and frogs call out./ Sometimes, there’s the soft/ who-whoo of an owl lost/ amid the pines./ Even the dogs won’t rest until/ they’ve howled/ at the moon” (emphasis by the author).
As I said, Brown Girl Dreaming has garnered great attention this year, including six starred reviews. Kirkus Review writes, “Woodson cherishes her memories and shares them with a graceful lyricism; her lovingly wrought vignettes of country and city streets will linger long after the page is turned.” Publishers Weekly emphasizes the strength of Woodson’s descriptions, saying, “The writer’s passion for stories and storytelling permeates the memoir, explicitly addressed in her early attempts to write books and implicitly conveyed through her sharp images and poignant observations seen through the eyes of a child.”
In this narrative, food is culture. Woodson writes longingly of food, as it connects her to her sometimes disconnected family and her new friends in New York. Her family gathers, “sitting an running their mouths/ while the pots on the stove bubbled/ with collards and sizzled with chicken/ and corn bread baked up brown/ inside Kay’s big black oven” (emphasis by the author). Later, Woodson marks the prosperity of her family by the quality of the meals. Plain pancakes in lean times are followed up with syrup, fruit and butter in more comfortable times. Woodson’s relationship with her best friend Maria is punctuated by descriptions of Maria’s mother’s cooking. “She pulls the crisp skin/ away from the pernil, eats the pork shoulder/ with rice and beans/…Yeah, I say. This is only for us. The family” (Emphasis by the author).
Because Woodson discusses many seminal moments in American history, there are many directions a reader may go if they want further reading. Perhaps the first books I would recommend are Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven (and yes, I am aware that I recommend these books a lot, but honestly, they’re worth it). These books cover topics like the Black Panthers (whose breakfast programs are mentioned in Brown Girl Dreaming) and the Vietnam War, as well as being concerned with self-identity, maturity and responsibility, all things Woodson touches upon in her book. Another beautiful book that I often find myself steering patrons towards is Cynthia Levinson’s micro-history of the Civil Rights movement called We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March. Woodson wrote about the training civil rights protesters had to undergo, training to help them stay non-violent and strong. Levinson gives details about such training, undergone by children and young adults in this startling and stirring account.
When the Newbery announcement is made this coming January, I won’t at all be surprised to hear Brown Girl Dreaming and Jacqueline Woodson’s name being called. This is a vital book, a pleasurable book. It is the kind of book that readers of any sex, color or creed can get lost inside.
Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014. ISBN: 9780399252518