restricted access An Odyssey of Dreams
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An Odyssey of Dreams
Brown Girl Dreaming
Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen Books
336 Pages; Print, $16.99

inline graphicThe good news is that Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming was, deservedly, awarded the 2014 National Book Award for young people’s literature, following two prior times as NBA finalist for her works Locomotion (2003) and Hush (2002). The well recognized Jacqueline Woodson is, as well, winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults, recipient of three Newbery honors, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and short-listed for the Hans Christian Andersen Award for lasting contributions to children’s literature. Her writing resume is as replete as this book is remarkable.

Brown Girl Dreaming is the story, a memoir of sorts, of Woodson’s early life told entirely in free verse. Each page is a poetic evocation of some aspect of her childhood—a glimpse into a child’s soul—while cumulatively articulating the special joys of becoming a writer. While the book tells of an individual life, it simultaneously portrays a compelling social history. Intended for readers of the middle grades, ages 10-16, it turns out to be a rare gift for all of us, regardless of age, race, or gender.

Those of us of a certain age (boomers) know that the past sixty years or so have witnessed astonishing social, cultural, and political change in America— changes involving race relations, women’s rights, environmental awareness, education, and far more. In this connection, Woodson’s story is both personal and about her times, her country.

Lorraine Hansberry once said, “To create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific.” Woodson, in seeking to cast a wide yet particular net, wisely cites a few tone-setting lines about dreams from Langston Hughes’s (1902-1967) “Dreams” on the frontispiece of the book:

Hold fast to dreamsFor if dreams dieLife is a broken-winged birdThat cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreamsFor when dreams goLife is a barren fieldFrozen with snow.

Woodson proclaims in her “author’s note,” “That’s what this book is—my past, my people, my memories, my story.” In effect, her life is something of an odyssey of dreams. Born in Ohio in 1963, during the civil rights movement (America then “a country caught// between Black and White”), she was raised by her mother’s people in South Carolina and later moved with her mother and siblings to Brooklyn, New York. She tells movingly of feeling strangely halfway home in each place. The midwest, the rural south and the urban east coast all presented vastly different contexts of experience and meaning. Her poems variously reflect on living with the remnants of the Jim Crow south, her growing awareness of the civil rights and women’s movements, her immediate and extended family, the impact of days filled with being a Jehovah’s Witness, the everyday realities of Brooklyn community life, and ultimately the search to find her place in the world. It’s largely about the experience everyone undergoes of growing up and leaving the past behind, tempered by her emerging revelation that she can never “really” leave her past behind. It’s, also, about recognizing, with each geographical and cultural move, her naturally changing voice.

Crucial to finding her place is discovering her voice through writing stories. Though she struggled with writing and reading as a child, Woodson was eventually given a composition notebook, began reading Hughes’s poetry and finding inspiration in collecting family stories, gradually coming to understand how letters turn into words and words into thoughts. She moves from saying “Words come slow to me on the page” to “Words are my brilliance”—portraying how she comes, magically, to breathe words in and let them out. The crucial turning point arrives when an attentive Brooklyn teacher, having read her early writings, announces, “You’re a writer.” Woodson’s course was set, and a debt of gratitude is owed to that perceptive teacher.

Woodson easily morphs into something of a philosopher in the book’s...