“I do not know if these hands will become
Malcolm’s – raised and fisted
or Martin’s – open and asking
or James’s – curled around a pen.
I do not know if these hands will be
and fiercely folder
calmly in a lap,
on a desk,
around a book,
to change the world…” (Woodson 2014, p. 5).
I absolutely adored the flow of Woodson’s poetry, which left me feeling inspired and ready to conquer my own world. Much like Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, this book is written in free verse poetry, playing with words in a way that makes the story being told come to life. The difference with Brown Girl Dreaming, however, is the fact that this book is a memoir rather than a work of fiction, detailing Woodson’s childhood growing up in both North Carolina and Brooklyn. I loved getting a glimpse into the mind of a talented writer; her personal poetry was a creative and unique way for her audience to see what growing up during the Civil Rights Movement was like, and her stories will leave every reader relating to her very human struggles.
In this personal, poetic account, Woodson begins by describing the moment of her birth, the details of which have been lost to memory over time. She then goes on to talk about what it was like to grow up in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, learning about peaceful protests, sit-ins, Malcom X, the Black Panthers, Rosa Parks, and the Freedom Riders. Though we all know this part of history existed, it becomes all the more real when someone writes what it was like to live through it in her own words, making this memoir an incredibly unique look at both history and the early life of an individual who was once searching for her place in life.
What struck me most about this book was just how relatable Woodson’s stories are. Not all of us have lived through the Civil Rights Movement, of course, but many of us have dealt with things like drifting friendships, the death of a grandparent, and having to move to a new, unfamiliar city. Many children, and even adults, can relate to these scenarios, as they are incredibly human experiences that resonate with readers of every age. Woodson’s words were inspiring, especially when you realize she lived in her sister’s shadow for most of her young life, feeling inadequate while harboring her own desire to write and tell stories. This memoir proves that you do not have to be at the top of your class to do great things, and that following your passion is important. Woodson wanted to be a writer more than anything else, so that is what she pursued, ignoring those who told her it was impractical. This was a small portion of the book, but crucial nonetheless, as kids need to see positive role models in their literature. Woodson’s poetry inspires children to follow their dreams, whatever those dreams may be, and reminds them that no dream is unattainable with enough faith and hard work.
As I mentioned above, this book also impressed me because of the way it plays with poetry. Woodson often quotes Langston Hughes in the work, introducing children to a famous poet while also sharing poetry of her own, poetry oozing with personality and character. I’ve come to realize that, while I appreciate traditional poetry, free verse leaves a lot more room for the author to play with language. I wouldn’t know the first thing about writing it, but Woodson’s free verse poetry was a joy to read from start to finish. When I started the book, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to follow Woodson’s story due to the poetry (as I sometimes have a hard time following poetry), but she made it abundantly clear (at least in my opinion) what was going on in each section. To me, this was an incredibly unique way to write an autobiographical work, as it mixes a simple story about the author’s past with her actual poetry, adding heart and substance to what would have otherwise been very straightforward. It was almost like reading the personal diary of a friend, getting a glimpse into the very heart and soul of another person; Woodson does not hold back her thoughts and feelings, even if those thoughts aren’t so nice. This made for an incredibly raw and real experience, and one that I think children will appreciate.
Many children find it hard to understand “classic” poetry, so I think introducing them to a book like Brown Girl Dreaming or The Crossover would be an excellent way to warm a reluctant reader up to the genre. Jumping headfirst into Robert Frost or Walt Whitman might be too difficult for someone who isn’t used to poetry, but showing them a narrative (fictional or otherwise) written in a modern style makes poetry much more accessible and far less scary. It might not teach proper poetic style (as both books are written in free verse), but it could show a child that poetry doesn’t have to be hard to understand. Poetry, much like prose, is very diverse, and telling a story in prose can show children that they don’t necessarily have to follow strict rules when writing from their heart; the most important thing is writing what you feel as it comes, making the words authentic. Woodson’s poetry comes from a very intimate place, and flows organically without being forced. A teacher could easily have a child read this book and then write his or her own free verse poem about a specific event or emotion, helping them to really connect with her words in a way that regular prose might not.
Though this book is simple, I think it has the power to resonate with a large audience, as it is accessible, short, and full of moments that many children (and adults) can relate to. The story blends a little bit of historical context with Woodson’s personal trials, making for a highly entertaining and thought-provoking read that will make you want to quickly binge the rest of Woodson’s work. I highly recommend it to any fan of either poetry or autobiographical works, as it’s a rare treat that is more than deserving of its National Book Award.
Woodson, J. (2014). Brown girl dreaming. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books.