Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

“I am born in Ohio but
the stories of South Carolina already run
like rivers
through my veins.”

In her free-verse memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson shares what it was like growing up Black in the midst of the civil rights movement, having an absentee father, having a beloved uncle who goes to prison, is released, has become a Muslim. She talks about growing up Jehovah’s Witness, hearing rhythm and music in the words she hears at the Kingdom Hall, and having doubts about her faith. She remembers noticing the differences between being Black in her home in the North, and Black in her grandparents’ home in the South.

Woodson’s recollections of her childhood are powerful, even when sharing simple moments. She struggled as a reader and writer (she remembers, “I am not gifted” and “I am not smart like Dell,” which is astounding, considering she’s written such a powerful book). She speaks fondly of visiting the library, and stresses the importance of children finding reflections of themselves in the books they read, in order to learn that “someone who looked like me had a story.”

“It’s easier to make up stories
than it is to write them down. When I speak,
the words come pouring out of me. The story
wakes up and walks all over the room. Sits in a chair,
crosses one leg over the others, says,
Let me introduce myself. Then just starts going on and on.
But as I bend over my composition notebook,
only my name
comes quickly…”

Woodson’s uncle encouraged her to “make up stories.” He pushed her to stretch it further, to think through the details. But her mother called it “lying” and wanted her to stop. Woodson explains that her brain exercises creativity differently; she doesn’t sit down and write stories, she expresses them verbally. And look at where that’s taken her!

That passage hit me like a ton of bricks. C (age 7) has an older friend (age 10) who constantly tells stories. She seems to lie about everything, but it’s always small, insignificant things that are obviously not true. I didn’t get it. Why would she bother? Some days it feels like not one truthful word comes out of the girl’s mouth, but I could tell she wasn’t being malicious, and that she is bright. So when I read that passage above, I immediately thought about C’s friend and felt ashamed for feeling annoyed at her. Instead of feeling bothered by her “lies,” I’m now able to recognize and appreciate her creativity.

I read this as part of the Newbery Reading Challenge (2015 Honor award). Actually, I listened to the audiobook, which Woodson herself narrates. Listening to her was amazing. The way I read verse in my mind’s ear doesn’t sound nearly as beautiful as this―I’d like to listen again with the book in front of me sometime. Highly recommend!