A note: I wrote this post as a mentor for my students. It’s written in a more formal structure than what I usually use, and demonstrates structured writing that is just about ready to jump ship to more creative (thought still focused) nonfiction structures, which is where many of my 8th graders live as writers. Also, this book was beautiful and I can’t wait to pass out the seven copies I just received through a Teachers College grant.
Sometimes middle schoolers can forget the power of the dream. Though still children, their school and family responsibilities and expectations often seem to fill their waking hours. They are often treated like adults, but the adults forget that the grown-up life is brand new to them. Jacqueline Woodson’s latest book, Brown Girl Dreaming, is not just a compelling escape for readers, it is a lifeline of hope and beauty. The realizations Woodson shares throughout her memoir set in verse can help guide adolescent readers through their own messy lives by giving them hope for the future.
Early in the story, Jacqueline Woodson realizes that drawing strength from her roots can help her store up strength to face the challenges she will face. The first stanza of the story sets the stage for the cultural atmosphere for her childhood: “I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital Columbus, Ohio, USA—a country caught between Black and White” (1). Woodson began right away with one of the most difficult realities that despite the decades past, our country still doesn’t know how to handle. Later, though, she writes, “From Columbus,’ my father said, ‘you could go just about anywhere” (16). Literally, her father is referencing the fact that highways run north, south, and diagonal through Columbus. Figuratively, her father is giving her permission to dream. Woodson is passing this ability off to her readers. Even when people are born into what might feel like an impossible situation, there are ways to move forward. Her voice in this story gives permission to the reader to dream about where they might be headed in the future.
In the middle of the story, Jacqueline Woodson acknowledges the difficulty in making sense of life, but realizes that it’s ok to struggle as she figures out who she is. When she and her siblings are shuffling between their grandparents’ home in South Carolina and her mother’s new home in Brooklyn she writes, “Our feet are beginning to belong in two different worlds—Greenville and New York. We don’t know how to come home and leave home behind us” (195). Beyond the difficulty of moving and feeling like an outsider, readers can relate to Woodson’s acknowledgement of the struggle to fit in. She also writes of how she is often compared to her siblings and feels lost in comparison. When she begins to listen to the voices of wisdom in her life, though, she has the courage to be comfortable being herself. She says of her grandfather: “And when I sing to him, I’m not just left of the key or right of the tune. He says I sing beautifully. He says I am perfect” (236). Woodson realizes that she doesn’t have to please everyone or be like anyone else and while this frees her. She is able to feel comfortable with the question “How can I explain to anyone that stories are like air to me?” (247). This realization is also able to free the reader from some of the anxiety that accompanies adolescence and encourage them that it is normal to wrestle with their identity.
The biggest gift Woodson offers the reader by the end of the story is the message of hope in the future. As her older brother sings a solo beautifully in a school performance, she is stunned that she had no idea her brother had such a beautiful voice. She realizes, “Maybe…there is something hidden like this, in all of us. A small gift from the universe waiting to be discovered” (233). In the beginning, Woodson wasn’t sure where she was going to go, but was given permission to dream. And now she sees how a small passion, even if it is unknown to others, can blossom into something more. By the end of the story she is able to see how she was born to write: “I keep writing, knowing now that I was a long time coming” (298). Woodson is able to grasp this enormous part of her identity and see that it has always been a part of her—it just took courage to keep at it. Her readers can see how her past and present work together to give her something that will carry her into the future, and can also believe that this could be true for them as well.
This story is one that was made for young teenagers who need to be reminded that there are many roads to choose from, the assurance that the journey might be bumpy, and most of all, that a future filled with hope is in their hands.