Brown Girl Dreaming
This review was created by the editorial staff at Thriving Family magazine
This memoir by Jacqueline Woodson is written in free verse. The book is published by Nancy Paulsen Books, a division of Penguin Publishing Group.
Brown Girl Dreaming is written for ages 10 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
This book is a series of free verse poems in which the author reveals her memories of growing up African-American in the '60s and early '70s. Jacqueline was born Feb. 12, 1963 in Columbus, Ohio. As an adult, she recalls that the country was caught in a time of civil unrest. Malcolm X was talking about revolution. Martin Luther King was marching toward change.
Jacqueline's father wanted to name her "Jack" after himself. He thought it would make her strong. He left the hospital angry when his wife would only compromise and call the baby "Jackie." She made sure the birth certificate said "Jacqueline" so there would be no mistakes later.
Jacqueline grew up with a strong knowledge of her family's heritage. Her father's family traced their ancestors back to the first child of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. Knowing this gave her family a sense of pride and encouraged them to make the most of their lives, becoming doctors, lawyers and teachers. An uncle even fought for the Union during the Civil War.
Every winter, Jacqueline's mother bundled her up, along with her older brother, Hope, and her older sister, Odella, and took the bus to Greenville, South Carolina, where her mother's parents lived. Jacqueline's father rarely went with them. He hated the bigotry of the South and preferred to stay in Ohio where his family was respected.
Jacqueline's mother loved to reminisce with her cousins and her parents about the past. They took the night bus when they returned to Ohio because it was safer. Black people were often stopped and questioned, sometimes beaten, if they tried to ride the bus during the day. When Jacqueline was a year old, her parents separated. Her mother took her and her siblings to live in Greenville.
Jacqueline enjoyed growing up with her grandparents and soon began calling her grandfather "Daddy." He worked as a foreman for a newspaper but was often not given the respect he deserved from the white employees under his supervision. They lived in Nicholtown, a black neighborhood, but her grandmother said that the times were changing. Grandmother worked part time cleaning houses in the white neighborhood, in order to help feed her grandchildren. She was proud of the work she did and how it helped to provide for her family.
Grandmother was a Jehovah's Witness. She read her Bible at night and in the morning told the children Bible stories. Jacqueline learned to write the letter "J" when she was 3. She was enthralled with words and stories even then. After bathing on Saturday nights, she would listen to Odella read stories while Grandmother fixed her hair. She loved listening to the stories the adults told each other when they thought the children were asleep. Jacqueline repeated the family gossip to her siblings, making up the parts of the stories she couldn't hear.
As the fight for racial equality spread over the South, Jacqueline and her siblings heard their grandparents and mother speaking more about it. Her mother began to take part in protests, always with Grandmother warning her not to get arrested. Mother's Cousin Dorothy told her that she should attend training to know how to behave when someone took offense at a protest. She warned Mother that everybody has a line.
Dorothy could handle most anything, but she prayed whenever she sat at a lunch counter. She didn't want anyone to spit on her because she couldn't guarantee she'd remain nonviolent. Their neighbor Miss Bell hosted meetings at her house for the marchers. She knew the white woman she worked for would fire her if she marched, but she could hold these meetings secretly. Jacqueline's mother moved to New York City where she hoped to start a better life. The children stayed with their grandparents until she was settled.
When their mother returned to take them to New York, she brought her new baby boy, Roman. Jacqueline was jealous that she would no longer be the baby of the family. She didn't like the city at first because it was gray and made of stone. They soon moved from their first apartment because the ceiling fell down in the bathroom. Jacqueline liked their next apartment because her aunt lived upstairs and a friend from Greenville lived on the floor below them.
On Saturday nights, they all got together for dinner and talked like they did in South Carolina. They moved away when Jacqueline's aunt had an accident and died. Their Uncle Robert moved nearby. The children loved when he visited because he always brought presents. Jacqueline's mother warned him to be careful and not get in trouble.
Baby Roman got lead poisoning from eating the paint on his bedroom walls. He was hospitalized. Their mother stayed behind while Robert took the older children by train to spend the summer in Greenville. When they returned, Roman was still in the hospital. He eventually came home, but he was smaller than other children, and the lead had damaged his brain. Jacqueline was happy when he came home for good and they were a family again.
Jacqueline found a best friend, Maria, who was Hispanic. In school, Jacqueline longed to be as bright and rewarded as Odella, but learning was difficult for her. Still, she loved to make up stories. They stayed stuck in her head, however, because she couldn't write quickly. The children spent another summer in Greenville, but their grandfather grew very ill.
Grandmother still sat in the back of the bus because it was easier than having people look at her like dirt. Jacqueline wanted to be brave like the other African-Americans who rode in the front of the bus.
In fourth grade, Jacqueline memorized the story "The Selfish Giant" by Oscar Wilde because she loved it so much. When asked to read it out loud to the class, she instead recited the story from heart. Her teacher and classmates were amazed. It was then Jacqueline realized that words were her gift and purpose.
Her Uncle Robert was arrested and sent to prison. She and her family visited him. He had changed, becoming quieter and sadder. Jacqueline wrote her first song after visiting him. In early spring of that year, they received word that Grandfather was dying. They hurried home to see him. He died the night they arrived. Grandmother moved to live near Jacqueline's family.
Jacqueline continued to make up stories. She found strength and idealism in the protest of the Black Panthers and people like Angela Davis. Jacqueline began to see what was happening in the world as a carousel. History was always being made around her. Sometimes she was a part of it; sometimes she wasn't. But she knew that she was ready for the ride. In fifth grade, Jacqueline's teacher called her a writer. It was one of the happiest moments of her life.
Grandmother tells the children the stories of Noah and David at the breakfast table. Miss Bell prays for God's protection on herself and the marchers. Leaving for New York City is compared to crossing over the River Jordan to Paradise.
When the children have nightmares, Grandmother tells them to have faith in the Bible, use it as their sword and shield. She has regular Bible studies at her house. She tells the children that every breath, everything they own, is a gift from God. The children argue that Grandfather gave them a swing set; she patiently explains that he bought it with money he earned from a job God provided.
They are taught that they all have a purpose on this earth, and they are promised eternity. A statue of Jesus, Mary and Joseph sits outside the last house to which Jacqueline's family moves. The landlord tells her mother that the saints protect the house. Jacqueline hears the story of Adam and Eve at the Kingdom Hall. Maria's little brother is baptized. At Grandfather's funeral, they sing a hymn.
Other Belief Systems
Grandmother is a Jehovah's Witness. They worship at the Kingdom Hall and say "Thank Jehovah" for blessings. Jacqueline tells the days of the week by the chores in them. Tuesday night's Bible study is at the Kingdom Hall. On Thursday nights she attends Ministry School to learn to evangelize. On Saturday, they must take The Watchtower and Awake! to different neighborhoods. She knocks on doors and introduces herself as Sister Jacqueline. On Sunday they must sit for two hours of service at the Kingdom Hall.
Jacqueline learns that the Jehovah's Witnesses believe that anyone who doesn't believe in God will be destroyed at Armageddon. After that there will be a new and peaceful world. Neighborhood children tell Jacqueline that she's killed the Devil when she steps on a mushroom. They threaten that the Devil will be reborn and come looking for her while she sleeps and that God won't be able to protect her.
Grandfather doesn't believe in a God that won't let him drink alcohol or smoke. He believes God will see the good in his heart and judge him for that. Jacqueline's family does not celebrate birthdays and holidays. She must leave the classroom when the Pledge of Allegiance is being said. She is sad when a woman can't afford to buy a copy of The Watchtower as she fears the woman will not be a part of God's new world.
Their Uncle Robert tells them that if they wish on dandelion fluff their wish will come true. Jacqueline's aunt believes in destiny, that nothing could be avoided if it was meant to happen. Her mother says she believes in the moment she's living in, the Resurrection, Brooklyn and her four children. Uncle Robert converts to the Muslim faith in prison. He tells the children about Muhammad and Mecca. He prays on a prayer rug. In one of the last poems, Jacqueline lists what she believes. In the poem she claims to believe in God and evolution, the Bible and the Qur'an, among other things.
No profanity is used. Slang words used are dang, darn, Jeez and bummer. Although racial violence is talked about, it is never described. Jacqueline's aunt is killed in a fall, but it is not described. Other children tease the children when they return to Greenville. Some of that includes braids being pulled, light slaps and pinches.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Grandfather tells Jacqueline that brown people must insist on change gently.
- Do you believe like Grandfather believed? Explain.
Is there something you would be willing to fight and even die for?
What is prejudice?
- How do Jacqueline's grandparents and mother face prejudice?
- When does Jacqueline face it?
How have you seen someone face it or how have you faced it?
Have you ever had to move away from your friends and extended family?
- If so, how did it make you feel?
- What did you miss the most?
- If you haven't moved, imagine what it would be like and discuss what you think you would miss most about your home.
- How did Jacqueline feel about moving?
What did she miss the most?
Jacqueline grew up comparing herself to Odella.
- Tell about a time when you may have been jealous of a sibling's or a friend's accomplishments.
What did you do to get over those feelings?
When did Jacqueline know she wanted to be a writer?
- What things are you good at doing?
- How might being good at those things help you in a career in the future?
Tobacco: Grandfather smokes cigarettes. He dies from the effects of smoking.
Alcohol: Grandfather talks about enjoying a beer on Friday nights.
Lying: Jacqueline makes up stories about her family for school.
Stealing: It is hinted that Uncle Robert went to jail for stealing.
This review is brought to you by Focus on the Family, a donor-based ministry. Book reviews cover the content, themes and world-views of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.
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Readability Age Range
10 and up
Nancy Paulsen Books, a division of Penguin Publishing Group
Newbery Honor, 2015; National Book Award Winner, 2014; Sibert Honor Book, 2015