Friday, December 19, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

In journalism school I'd get writer's block from deadlines. I would plop open Patricia Hampl's poetry to any page and no matter what, her words conjured up images and emotions that always unlocked my brain-freeze. This book is more poetry than plot as it jumps around at times following a less sequential structure for a novel-in-verse. That is not to say it is kittywampus. The order is there. I just got confused once in awhile. Plus, reading it in one sitting didn't work for me as well as savoring it in bits and pieces, like nibbling on slices of Tollhouse bars from a cake pan all day. You decide for yourself.

The emotions, history, imagery, and themes are loosely tied together as they chronicle the story of the author, an African American, growing up in the South and North. The history is going to be hard to figure out for some readers because of the sparse text that touches on major civil rights events, but doesn't go into depth. Some background knowledge helps fill in gaps on incidents such as sit-ins and marches, Jim Crow laws, and the Black Panthers, to name a few. This beautifully told story is about a girl trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life as she deals with her parents divorce, the civil rights movement, and three family relocations. I found many of her vignettes causing my own forgotten childhood memories to resurface. Amazing writing. Amazing craft. But some are going to find this book slow.

Jacqueline Woodson was born in Ohio. Her dad is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and his black slave, Sally Hemings. Jacqueline's mother was from South Carolina where her grandma still lives. Jacqueline's parents fight and she goes with her two siblings and mother to live with their grandparents where she develops close ties with her grandpa in particular. He's a smoker that develops emphysema and believes in God but not the Jehovah's Witnesses which is Jacqueline's family's religion. Life is dangerous in the South. It is safer to stay in the back of the bus. White women are hired at department stores to shadow African Americans shopping to make sure they don't steal any merchandise. Segregation is prevalent in public places and schools. Jacqueline notices that revolutions in all cultures are like a merry-go-round and wishes for peace. The end challenges readers to choose which world, which story, and which ending they desire. Readers can step into the many worlds whether it is imaginative storytelling or a revolution, but to remember if "the world explodes/around you - that you are loved..."

When Jacqueline's mom goes to New York she leaves behind her three young children. The text suggests that she has a child with a white man, but nothing is explained. I wasn't sure how long the mom was away from her three children that she left with her mother in South Carolina. Sometimes I got confused by the timing of events. Obviously, Jacqueline's mom was gone nine months, but perhaps longer. Jacqueline's new brother is named Roman and his skin is pale. Later, the boy ends up in the hospital from eating lead paint from the apartment walls. He's one of the character's I wanted to get to know better. There were others in the family as well that are not elaborated on. Maybe there will be a sequel. I hope so.

The theme of storytelling versus lying is subtly weaved throughout some chapters. Jacqueline gets in trouble from her mom for lying when Jacqueline says she is just making up stories. There's been several children's books published in 2014 on this topic but I think Jonathan Auxier's book, "The Night Gardener," articulates it well when his character says that lies hurt people and storytelling helps them. Jacqueline learns the same lesson. At first, she doesn't know the difference between when someone, such as Cora, is telling a superstitious lie to scare her versus a story. At the end Jacqueline is making up stories to her classmates suggesting that she has figured out that telling stories versus lying depends on intent. Storytelling is an expression of the imagination; whereas, lying is a way to avoid consequences of harmful actions. While storytelling is a great way to nurture creativity and imagination, sometimes it can be hard for kids to figure out when it is or is not appropriate.

Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for this book and in an unfortunate incident, Lemony Snicket who presented the award, made a racist joke when giving it to her. She countered the comment in a respectful response to move beyond stereotypes and learn about painful pasts so people can live with diversity in healthy communities. Her book is about white people showing disrespect to black people, as well as, her discovering her love for storytelling. Diverse books are necessary to teaching tolerance. Books are one vehicle for teachers and parents to open discussions about issues with children about how to respect other people regardless of race, gender, religion, disabilities, or more. Dialogue is necessary so that people can look at their own biases and change. While Lemony Snicket, in an attempt to be funny was demeaning, he did spark public outrage and debate at how the community needs to change hurtful language into words that show respect for one another. I live in Taiwan and my assistants said that until recently it was taboo to discuss Chiang Kai-Shek's massacre of almost 30,000 Taiwanese when he came to power in the 1940s. They said it is so painful, echoing Jacqueline's comments in the New York Times article. The only way to prevent future wrongdoing's is to discuss how to make the world better. As the character in this book says, "I know my work is to make the world a better place for those coming after." How true for all of us.

5 Smileys

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