Bob Seeney on Books

Brown Girl Dreaming

August, 2015

Award Winner

Among the awards Brown Girl Dreaming has received so far in 2015 are these:

  • National Book Award
  • Newbery Honors Book
  • Coretta Scott King Book Award
  • Robert F. Sibert Honors Book.

Awards aside, what makes this book truly special and memorable is that it tugs at the heart!

BS

I was unaware that one of my favorite authors, Jacqueline Woodson, was dyslexic. Not only does she describe her difficulties and successes in school in the fantastic Brown Girl Dreaming (2014, Nancy Paulsen Books), but she wonderfully and beautifully describes growing up in both the North and the South in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Notice that in only two sentences I’ve already used two powerful adverbs and one strong adjective! That should clue you in to my reaction to this multiple award-winning book.

Woodson has chosen to tell the story of her childhood in verse. Each gripping entry/chapter takes the form of a stand-alone poem. She recounts heartbreaking tales of racism and prejudice balanced by stories of family, of courage, and of special relationships, in particular of the special relationship between Woodson and her maternal grandfather, Gunnar. This relationship is told primarily in the chapter gunnar’s children and also in daddy this time. The author’s loving comments give more than ample credence to her statement that her grandfather was and remains a motivating force in her life.

Space does not allow even brief comments upon the many chapters I would like to address, so we will make do with reactions on three chapters. In the first, reading, Woodson states, “I am not my sister.” She then describes how, for her, the words curl around each other on the page and don’t make any sense until she reads them ”again and again,” until the story settles into her memory. She is chided by her teachers who want her to “read faster,” to “read older.”  She writes, “But I don’t want to read faster or older or anyway else that might make the story disappear….” 

Take note parents and teachers. Our 2e students need to choose their own pace and choose their own books to give them the confidence to become more sophisticated readers, those who, among other things, discover the sense of story in all that they read. Woodson describes in this chapter what happens when a story becomes part of her. She states that it is “…a story I will remember long after I’ve read it for the second, third, tenth, hundredth time.”  Surely this is the goal ofevery reader!

In the chapter gifted Woodson’s thoughts remind us of the danger of comparing siblings who might or might not be identified as gifted. Her older sister, Odella, is obviously gifted and a high performer; but Woodson almost sadly writes, “I am not gifted. When I read, the words twist — twirl across the page.” Nevertheless, the author is not without her dreams. She says:

I want to catch words one day. I want to hold
them
then blow gently
watch them float
right out of my hands.
Brown Girl Dreaming is certainly prime and wonderful proof that Woodson has realized her dream in this book as well as in her others. We find this same dream referenced in paper, a chapter short enough to share here:
The first time I write my full name
Jacqueline Amanda Woodson
without anybody’s help
on a clean white page in my composition
notebook,
                I know
if I wanted to
I could write anything.
Letters becoming words, words gathering
meaning,
                becoming
thoughts outside my head
becoming sentences
written by
                                Jacqueline Amanda Woodson

Letters becoming words, words gathering meaning, becoming thoughts….  We can only rejoice that Woodson has achieved this dream and has given us Brown Girl Dreaming. For me, this is one of those books that is uniquely special, important, and awe inspiring. It is one of those books that every teacher should read and then guide his/her students to its richness. That way it can become an inspiration for all students, but especially for those who may be struggling with reading and writing. I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a must read!

Bob Seney

Professor Emeritus Bob Seney is retired from teaching in the Masters of Gifted Studies Program at Mississippi University for Women. At conferences, he often presents a session titled “What’s New in Young Adult Literature.” Reach him at bseney@muw.edu.

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