How many of you wrote a book and “published” it when you were a child? I did — and illustrated it too. “Sammy and Mary” was a love story between two squirrels. I wrote and drew the book on a yellow legal pad and bound it using a department store shirt box.
There are seven of them,
Not enough for a real book until
I cut each page into small squares
staple the squares together, write
on each page.
And just like that, she’s a writer.
Of course, this poem is on page 252 of a 320-page book, so she’s already been a writer. “Words are my brilliance,” she writes in “the selfish giant.”
Brown Girl Dreaming is about a brown girl with big dreams, growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s in Columbus, Ohio; Greenville, South Carolina; and Brooklyn, New York. It is about race, but it’s also about cricket lullabies, funk music, Jehovah’s Witnesses, lead poisoning, learning difficulties, butterflies, and family. In other words, it’s about life.
But mostly, it’s about becoming a writer, which is why I bought it even before it won the National Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, and received the Newbery Honor. Because it’s a memoir told through poems, all at a middle-grade reading level, it’s for anyone who loves to read and write.
The Jackie behind and inside the poems is a girl who makes up stories, sometimes stories she’s told are “too good.” She’s inspired by Robert Frost, Langton Hughes, Oscar Wilde, and Soul Train. The question for the reader is how is this girl going to reach her goal? She describes one of her challenges in “writing #1.”
… The story
wakes up and walks all over the room. Sits in a chair,
crosses one leg over the other, 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. Each letter, neatly printed
between the pale blue lines. Then white
space and air and me wondering, How do I
spell introduce? Trying again and again
until there is nothing but pink
bits of eraser and a hole now
where a story should be.
Like all good heroes, Jackie has limitations, as described in Sanderson’s Second Law. She doesn’t read well. She’s not good at actual writing either, shortening her name in the poem “late autumn” to Jackie so she doesn’t have to complete the impossible task of linking the cursive c to q to u to spell Jacqueline. After her parents divorce, she’s raised sometimes by a single mother and sometimes by grandparents. She’s also a girl, and the writers she admires are men, even the author of the picture book about Stevie, the first one she’s ever seen with brown people like her.
Even though the poems are written from child-Jackie’s perspective, she is observant. That means we readers get insight into characters that she doesn’t have. For example, we know Uncle Robert is up to no good long before Jackie does because of stanzas like this in “far rockaway”:
He says he won’t forget,
asks us if he’s a man of his word and
everyone except my mother
We also feel empathy for Jackie’s mother, even as she leaves her kids with her parents and goes to New York to have another baby. We get a child’s view into what it is like to be raised Jehovah’s Witness, what it feels like when Coraandhersisters use the swing set in Daddy Gunnar’s yard on Sunday afternoons, when Jackie and her siblings are made to rest from playing outside. We learn the importance of a name — a word associated with what it means to be you — and what it means for a boy to inherit his grandfather’s name, Hope.
In the Author’s Note, Woodson writes, of the process of putting together this memoir, “I think my life was at once ordinary and amazing.” Most lives are a mix of both, and sometimes we don’t know which parts are amazing and which are ordinary until we write them down. I think Woodson discovered which was which in writing this memoir.
In one of the last poems, “the earth from far away,” Jackie remembers this first moment of writing:
there was only the letter J and my sister’s hand
wrapped around mine, guiding me, promising me
This book is a piece of infinity, teaching us how to listen (there are ten haiku with that title), how to dream, how to wait for the day like the one in “a writer” when Jackie finally becomes the thing she longs to be, despite her limitations:
You’re a writer, Ms. Vivo says, holding my poem out to me
The next Children’s Book Club will meet Friday, October 14. We’ll read The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. Please make sure you check out the copy with the subtitle “The Definitive Edition.” If you, like me, read the book before 1998, you haven’t read the most complete version.
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“Megan Willome has captured the essence of crow in this delightful children’s collection. Not only do the poems introduce the reader to the unusual habits and nature of this bird, but also different forms of poetry as well.”
—Michelle Ortega, poet and children’s speech pathologist