Absolutely not only for the children
I discovered Jacqueline Woodson’s autobiography-through-poetry book through the excellent Jilanne Hoffmann’s blog, The Writer’s Shadow, and her review of it sent me scurrying to order the book forthwith – do go read her review as there are more quotes from brown girl dreaming, some which are particularly stunning.
Woodson is a black American, and tells her story as a ‘brown girl’ born in 1963, both as her own, individual family story and the wider story of black history from a particular time and place. She is an award winning writer for children and teens, but her reach goes way beyond being confined to appeal ‘only to children’
In many ways, I think the challenge involved in recognising that children are completely capable of understanding great and subtle complexity of meaning, but that they may not have quite the sophistication of adult vocabulary, is a brilliant discipline for a writer – it hones their craft. Some writing about complexity for adults leads to writing becoming over fussy, even designed to confuse or show off dexterity, but the really excellent writer who chooses to write for a younger audience – like Woodson – somehow keeps all the layers of meaning held within simply arresting, clear images, clear language
I had to take this clear and pared down book extremely slowly and very carefully, anxious not to miss anything.
Woodson’s words are spoken softly, but they are powerful, and her images rolled unstoppably over me, leaving me, many times, breathlessly weeping
The starting point, is a poem by Langston Hughes, the rest of the story is Woodson’s
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow
Born in Ohio, but raised also in South Carolina, where her mother and her father’s mother were from, she tells of an experience from the North and the South.
She reminds us that in 1963:
In Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr.
is planning a march on Washington, where
John F. Kennedy is president.
In Harlem, Malcolm X is standing on a soapbox
talking about a revolution
In Montgomery, only seven years have passed
since Rosa Parks refused
to give up
her seat on a city bus
She recounts the confusing experience of marital break-up, from the child’s viewpoint, and the pain when families are torn apart, the conflicts when the people you love are no longer all living together – a sense that ‘home’ is forever lost because it now belongs in several different places
Our feet are beginning to belong
in two different worlds-Greenville
and New York. We don’t know how to come
To set against the pain of loss and breakup as relationships end and the older generation who were strong and powerful become frail and the ones to be looked after, is Jacqueline’s secret excitement at beginning to master words, to discover that she is, she will be, a teller of stories
For days and days, I could only sniff the pages
hold the notebook close
listen to the sound the papers made.
Nothing in the world is like this-
a bright white page with
pale blue lines. The smell of a newly sharpened pencil
the soft hush of it
This would indeed be a wonderful book for a child, and probably an even more wonderful one for parents and children to find delight in together.