Brown Girl Dreaming is a stunning verse memoir in which the author describes her experiences of growing up in 1960s America, including her birth in Ohio and her childhood divided between segregated South Carolina and New York.
Woodson has carefully researched her family history, and includes many details from previous generations and events from her earliest infancy that have been handed down to her, such as her father’s family who are said to be descended from Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved woman Sally Hemings. Change is coming by the time Jacqueline is born in 1963, and the book features key moments in the Civil Rights movement, but memories of slavery and segregation still loom large in the South; even after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, Jacqueline’s grandmother still chooses to sit at the back of the bus: ‘It’s easier, my grandmother says, / than having white folks look at me like I’m dirt. […] Easier to stay where you belong.’
As well as documenting her family’s experiences of shifting racial attitudes, Woodson also gives us a deeply personal account of growing up, describing family, friendships and her growing questions about her grandmother’s Jehovah’s Witness faith in which she is brought up. She writes particularly movingly about the impact of moving between different homes following her parents’ separation, as she observes:
‘Our feet are beginning to belong
in two different worlds – Greenville
and New York. We don’t know how to come
This is just one example of how beautifully crafted yet understated her verse is: here, the placement of the word ‘home’ on its own line each time she uses it conveys the aching sense of attachment she feels towards the two places between which she is torn. Elsewhere, Woodson punctuates her memoir with haikus which are entitled ‘how to listen’ and chart her developing sense of herself as a writer as she emerges from her talented older sister’s shadow – for instance, ‘Somewhere in my brain / each laugh, tear and lullaby / becomes memory’.
Brown Girl Dreaming won a National Book Award when it was first published in the US in 2014; in 2023 it was published in the UK for the first time, a welcome development which will allow secondary English and history teachers to share this book when teaching topics relating to American segregation and race relations. It would sit well alongside popular texts such as Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as well as more recent books which are now being taught such as Punching the Air and The Poet X. It is suitable for the full KS3 and KS4 age range, and Woodson’s authentic voice and experiences will add depth and nuance to readers’ understanding of this period.
Longlisted for the UKLA 2024 Book Award 11-14 fiction category
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