Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
There is no way I could possibly do this book justice, so I’ll just say that it is amazing and often beautiful. Through incredibly evocative poems, Woodson manages to capture the mood of her childhood, its formative events, the weight and importance of the times. Born in 1963, Woodson grew up knowing the Civil Rights struggles of the South and the more subtle prejudices of New York City. She experienced her grandmother’s intense devotion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as her uncle’s conversion to Islam following his time in prison. She recognizes her teacher, a self-identifying feminist as a someone who is also part of a revolution. Woodson’s words are gently powerful, drawing you into her world, her life.
I won’t fool myself into thinking that this will fly off library shelves into the hands of waiting children. I know that it’s the kind of kids’ book that adults love but that may not fare as well with a younger audience. That said, it’s an important book and its structure makes it incredibly easy to excerpt. It would be a wonderful book for classroom use in its entirety, but if there are time constraints, or content concerns, certain chapters could be pulled out for discussion without losing their value.
Age Recommendation: Grades 5 and up. Do I know fourth graders who could read and understand this? Of course I do. But there’s something about the writing, about the references to the time period, that makes it a book that will be better understood and liked by more mature readers. There were sections of this I could have easily read with my third graders, but taken as a whole, I don’t know many who would have truly comprehended the book.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – A neighbor ran off with the church pastor, abandoning her family. Her mother is pregnant out of wedlock.
Profanity – “dang it”, shoot”. The words “stupid”, “dumb”, “jerk”, “darn”, are given as examples of words Jackie and her siblings were never ever allowed to say.
Death, Violence and Gore – The book mentions that people are fighting, marching and getting killed. An ancestor was is dead, likely killed fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Her uncle was killed in a car accident. People are sometimes beaten and questioned when leaving the South. There are some Biblical references to death/killing such as how much rain it took to kill sinners and Salome wishing for a man’s head on a platter. Her brother is beaten with a willow switch. Grandmother was one of thirteen children, three of whom died as babies. A beloved aunt falls and dies. A neighbor’s father died. Sometimes Jacqueline tells people her father died. Her Grandpa that she didn’t really remember died. A girl is slapped and pinched. A girl’s braids are pulled. A girl swings her fists. Her beloved grandfather passes away. There’s a funeral for an aunt. A boy gets beat up for walking in the wrong neighborhood in New York.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – Grandfather smokes a cigarette. He also drinks cold beer.
Frightening or Intense Things – The book covers a lot of history, much of which includes difficult times. It tells of Ruby Bridges, just six years old, being yelled at and spat on by white people while under armed guard escort to attend school. There is talk of slavery. In speaking about peaceful protests, their grandfather warns them to “be ready to die for what is right”. The treatment of the protestors is described, how they are cursed at, had food and drinks poured over them. A high school is set on fire during a dance. Neighbor children tell her that the Devil is going to come for her and her God won’t protect her. We learn that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe “that everyone who doesn’t follow God’s word will be destroyed in a great battle called Armageddon.” Her brother is hospitalized, sick from eating lead paint. His situation is very scary. Her grandfather is too sick to work and later too sick to get out of bed. Police come to her apartment looking for her uncle. Her uncle ends up in Riker’s Island prison. He is transferred to another prison and they visit him there.