"I have always imagined that Paradise will be some kind of library." ~ Jorge Luis Borges

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming


"I am not gifted. When I read, the words twist  
twirl across the page. 
When they settle, it is too late.
The class has already moved on.

I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them

then blow gently
and watch them float 
right out of my hands." 

Oh, but she is gifted. Jacqueline Woodson's memoir in verse is stunning. This is a story that is at once universal and unique. For this reader, born in the same year as Jacqueline Woodson and raised in the inner city, this is a story that I recognize. This has surely altered my reading, but even without these connections, I would love it as I do and so will my students and the other young readers out there. A brown girl dreams for every reader.  Jacqueline Woodson has taken her life's experiences and shared them in such a way that today's young readers can find themselves in her story - the bones of which should be every child's story - a story of love.

This is a story of family

"Look closely. There I am
in the furrow of Jack's brow,
in the slyness of Alicia's smile,
in the bend of Grace's hand..." 

Woodson demonstrates and celebrates
 the importance of knowing and owning our family stories; of the idea that there are those who have come before and the obligation to do right by them.

"Both know that southern way of talking

without words, remember when
the heat of the summer
could melt the mouth,
so southerners stayed quiet
looked out over the land,
nodded at what seemed like nothing
but that silent nod said everything
anyone needed to hear." 

Woodson reminds readers of the importance of the things that connect us as humans and the power of shared experiences. Young readers will see their own families reflected in this scene.

This is a story of a reader

stevie and me

"If someone had taken 
that book out of my hand
said, You're too old for this
I'd never have believed 
that someone who looked like me 
could be in the pages of the book
that someone who looked like me
had a story."

Woodson speaks to the importance of windows and mirrors in children's literature. Children's books (all books) should represent the pluralistic society in which we live - stories should represent children and families of various races, religions, family choices, and income levels.

This is a story of listening 


"At night, every living thing competes
for a chance to be heard."

how to listen #8 

"do you remember?

someone's always asking and
someone else, always does."

Jacqueline Woodson speaks to the power of listening, a skill that we all could stand a little time practicing.
 In the listening is the hearing and in the hearing is the understanding.

This is a story about the power of story

hair night

"As my sister reads, the pictures begin forming
as though someone has turned on a television, 
lowered the sound,
pulled it up close.
Grainy black-and-white pictures come slowly at me
Deep. Infinite. Remembered"

"My sister's clear soft voice opens up the world to me.
I lean in
so hungry for it."

Woodson captures the power of story and the even bigger power of the shared story experience. Reading aloud in the midst of the family activities shows how important reading is to Jacqueline's family.
The gift of books is being able to create and see the pictures of the setting, characters, and events.
This is a story of life

"You don't need words

on a night like this. Just the warmth
of your grandfather's arm. Just the silent promise
that the world as we know it
will always be here." 

Along with the tangible love of a grandfather, this poem provides an example of the importance of word choice: Woodson says "here" and not "same," because, of course, the world will never be the same, but it will be here. Many readers will note this reassurance. It brings to mind Emily Dickinson's Hope is the thing with feathers.

This is a story of loss

Woodson handles death with a gentle hand. The loss of her aunt is told sparingly, but eloquently with just enough information for readers to comprehend, but not wallow in the details. The memories end when Jacqueline Woodson's aunt dies, but not the remembering. In daddy this time - with her grandfather's health deteriorating, Woodson gently lets the reader absorb the loss of someone we have come to love. 


This is a story of hope

"that what is bad won't be forever,

and what is good can sometimes last
a long, long time." 

Throughout the book, Woodson delivers wisdom in vignettes from her childhood, such as when the neighbor girls have no evening obligations and can stay out playing after Jacqueline and her siblings have had to go inside.

This is a story of a writer

"Nothing in the world is like this-
a bright white page with 
pale blue lines. The smell of a newly sharpened pencil
and the soft hush of it 
moving finally
one day
into letters."

The poem composition notebook should be a poster in every classroom
This poem speaks both to the writer whose words and stories come easily and to the writer whose words and stories do not. I wish that all students felt as she did in the poem first grade - would that school could be a place of wonderment and acceptance for all students.
This is a story of love

"When there are many worlds, love can wrap itself
around you, and say, Don't cry. Say, You are as good as anyone. Say, Keep remembering me. And you know, even as the 
world explodes
around you - that you are loved..."

This is a story of a dreamer for dreamers

every wish, one dream
Brown Girl Dreaming is a view into the heart and mind of a writer - into the need to observe and record - the writing and the knowing - a way of understanding the world.  Jacqueline Woodson's life has been etched by time and place, but her dream never changed - each page, each poem, each phrase, each word.  A brown girl dreams and we all benefit.

"I believe in one day and someday and this 
perfect moment called Now." 

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

~Langston Hughes

Brown Girl Dreaming is published by Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

You can read about the book from Goodreads.    ~~~~~~~
When reading Brown Girl Dreaming, certain time and place references resonated deeply and brought up these memories:

My grandfather always found time for his grandchildren. He was more mischievous than my grandmother and was the source of Fannie Farmer chocolates and Ginger Ale (two things not available at home). I remember feeling safe when his large hands would envelop mine as he took me outside to show me the stars and explain the constellations. 

My friends and I would buy shaved ice (only available in the summer) from the cart along Tremont Street. Standing in the street we would watch his ice shaver speed across the block of ice in quick strokes producing soft flakes over which he would pour the syrup of our choice. The vendor would drizzle cherry and coconut syrup over the ice in those paper cups and then add just a little bit extra. Those paper cones would get soggy and we'd have to tip the cup up occasionally to drink the syrup from the bottom.

I was surprised to realize that students will not experience the smell of chalk in the air. I wonder if  students will write about white boards and dry erase markers? Will the finger nails on the chalk board reference become outdated and not make sense to this next generation? What about the sight of a teacher who has leaned against the board and is now spreading the word - literally and figuratively. So many questions!

Hours were spent in the alley ways between our houses or on the asphalt playground behind our school where we played stick ball, coco levio 1-2-3, Sardines, Ms. Lucy, Double Dutch, Scatter Rats, and freeze tag. neighborhood games were where I learned many of the social constructs.

I still eat Good & Plenty, Jujubes, and Necco Wafers and I am happy to announce that I have passed along a taste for them to my children!

A big wrench and someone's big brother came in handy on hot summer days when we thirsted for water. Playing in the fire hydrant was a right of passage.


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