Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown_Girl_Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming
Jacqueline Woodson
August 2014

Rarely is my reading so perfectly timed as it was this past week when I finished Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming at just about the time she was winning the National Book Award. I can’t really take credit; I was reading it for book club. I did, however, feel that I could vouch for this book’s worthiness as I had almost no time between finishing it, loving it, and having my feelings completely validated as it was thrust into a deserving spotlight.

In Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson writes about her own childhood and coming of age being shuttled between her mother in New York City and her grandparents in Greenville, South Carolina. While the movement between the north and the south in the midst of the civil rights movement of the 1960s informs much of Jackie’s racial identity and exploration throughout the book, her story is so much more than a personal history of race, as the title may make you believe. Jackie is so many things in this book: a Jehovah’s witness (though a somewhat reluctant one), aspiring writer and poet (despite her struggles with reading), friend, sister, daughter, and granddaughter.

The entire book is told in free verse poems, none more than three pages long. In a less skilled writer’s hands, such short snapshots could easily become episodic and disconnected, glimpses of a life instead of the story of a life, but the linear chronology of her story and the threads that run throughout keep it all together. While not every poem moves the action forward, they all contribute to the depth of Jackie’s character and her overall journey to young adulthood.

While many of the themes in Brown Girl Dreaming continue to be relevant today, one poem in particular – “stevie and me” (p. 227) – is especially relevant for its connection to diversity in children’s literature and the We Need Diverse Books movement. In this poem, Jackie is at the library where she and her siblings can choose any 7 books they want to check out. Because of her difficulty reading, she is drawn to the picture books:

If someone had been fussing with me
to read like my sister, I might have missed
the picture book filled with brown people, more
brown people than I’d ever seen
in a book before…

If someone had taken
that book out of my hand
said, You’re too old for this
maybe
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.

I think it is safe to say that Jackie certainly has a story, and one that we can all be glad she shared in Brown Girl Dreaming.

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Degrees of Separation: Getting a personalized author bio on the bus

Despite how much I complain about riding the T to and from work, there are times that I actually really enjoy the novelty and public-ness of the bus and the train. It makes me feel very of-the-people, even after I have spent all day sitting at the desk of a public library. Sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes it is a bad thing. Occasionally I do have a serendipitous run-in with a fellow passenger who is not afraid to strike up a conversation with a stranger…but who also is not on drugs or trying to scope out the electronics in my purse and calculate their possible street value. One such happy accident happened to me last week when I was reading an amazing book, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe  by Benjamin Alire SaAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universeenz.

I was on the crowded, after-work bus, unashamedly flashing the cover of Aristotle and Dante (a YA cover not to be ashamed of, as you can see to the right, though mine didn’t have all those impressive award seals on it) when a guy interrupted me: “Excuse me. Sorry to interrupt you, but I noticed the author of the book your reading and I know him!” Well, now I was intrigued, especially because I was reading Aristotle and Dante for the Boston Public Library Children’s Librarians book club and this interaction might make an amazing story for the meeting (0r a blog post)! Turns out this friendly gentleman, who will from here on out be referred to as “bus guy,” had worked with Benny, as he called him, at some sort of organization for transitional youth in El Paso, Texas. Benjamin Saenz had been bus guy’s supervisor and apparently a good one because bus guy had the best things to say about him. Benny had taken bus guy to meet his mother, a Mexican immigrant who lived in a tiny town in New Mexico, spoke no English and made some bomb chile rellenos. Benny would also often host his coworkers at his authentically (stereotypically?) Southwestern adobe-style house for parties and dinners. Bus guy remembered him as having “a lot of angst” but that he wrote beautiful poetry and was also an artist. After this amazing little biographical insight, I let the guy take my copy of the book long enough to read the synopsis and Benjamin Saenz’s bio on the back flap, and quickly type the book’s name into his iPhone so he could go buy it later. He was clearly very excited to talk about his old friend and just kept sharing little tidbits with me until his stop.

When all this happened, I had just started the book and was in a mad rush to finish it for book club. But after speaking with bus guy about Benny, I couldn’t help but slow down and look for pieces of him in the book based on what had been described to me. Everything from the setting in El Paso to the inner turmoil of the main character, an extremely lonely and self-tormenting Mexican-American teenage boy growing up in the 80s, seemed to corroborate bus guy’s memories of Benjamin Saenz. I was not at all surprised to learn that he is also a poet because the writing in Aristotle and Dante is emotional, precise, and uses repetition for emphasis in all the right places. Between reading the book and listening to the bus guy’s stories, I wanted to be friends with Benny too! I suppose I’ll just have to settle for befriending Aristotle and Dante. You should too.

It was a dark and stormy night…

U.S. cover of Pretty Monsters

No really, it was! My friends from graduate school and I kicked off our children’s/YA book group with our first meeting Wednesday, the same night that a tornado touched down in Western Massachusetts killing at least one person. The storm continued all the way across the state and passed right over us as we talked about our May book club pick, Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link, picked by Emily, our glorious hostess. It was an appropriately creepy night for talking about a creepy book.

I’m not usually a big fan of short stories, but I am a fan of books that creep me out, which a few of the stories in this book definitely did. My favorite was “The Specialist’s Hat,” which I found downright scary. All the stories use the unexpected to keep readers off balance while still using elements of classic science fiction and fantasy. Also, I love this book for YA readers. While some stories are reprinted from Link’s previous adult collections, all of them feature young protagonists in challenging situations and are just edgy enough to keep a YA reader’s attention without being too heavy handed or pushing too far content-wise.

And you can see for yourself, the covers rock. I’m more partial to the black-and-white U.S. version myself.

At the next book club meeting Janet will be throw some fairytale retelling knowledge our way. Can’t wait!

Australian cover of Pretty Monsters