Keep Dreaming, Brown Girl

Brown Girl Dreaming

Jacqueline Woodson

The Story: Winner of the Newbery Honor, National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Young Adult Fiction, Woodson’s novel has already made quite the splash. Written completely in verse, this novel is an autobiographical account of the author’s childhood growing up between South Carolina and Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s. Focus is placed on Jacqueline’s early childhood, from her birth to her first few grades in elementary school when she discovers her passion for writing, stories, and making a difference in her world.

What Wallace and I Think: Wow. This novel is amazing! It’s marketed as a young adult book, which I hate to say, is almost too bad. I know there are many “adults” that turn their noses up to YA lit, and would be missing out in the case of Woodson’s novel. So, if you usually do shy away from anything with a YA label, muster the courage and read this book!

Woodson’s novel deals artfully with issues of racism, family, divorce, education, and finding and following your passion. I will admit I was a little hesitant to read this book knowing it was all written in verse. I assumed it would take some “work” to get through the book, as I find it difficult to read poetry for extended periods of time. However, the verse in Brown Girl Dreaming is extremely easy to read, and although is somewhat disjointed, does provide us with a linear story-line that makes it extremely readable. I’m going to share some sections with you, just to prove it.

Being written in verse made this novel perhaps one of the most beautiful narratives I have lately read. There were sections that touched my heart so deeply that I found myself rereading the section over a few times before moving on. For example, this small section keeps haunting me days after reading:

I do not know if these hands will become / Malcolm’s–raised and fisted / Or Martin’s–open and asking / or James’s–curled around a pen. / I do not know if these hands will be / Rosa’s / or Ruby’s / gently gloved / and fiercely folded / calmy in a lap, / on a desk, / around a book, / ready / to change the world . . . Woodson 5

This gave me chills, friends! Several tears were shed on my part, as well as some wide smiles and silent laughs. I also loved her descriptions of places. She conveys South Carolina in an almost mythical and nostalgic tone, while also being able to communicate the dangers of being black in the south during the 1960s and 70s.

And the air is what I’ll remember. / Even once we move to New York. / It always smelled like like, my mothers says. / Wet grass and pine. / Like memory. Woodson 95-6

Likewise, if South Carolina is based in nature, Brooklyn is felt to be gritty and concret, yet offering more opportuities.

Here there is only gray rock, cold / and treeless as a bad dream. Who could love / this place– where no pine trees grow, / no porch swings moves / with the weight of / your grandmother. Woodson 143

Although I have argued that this novel should not be read by only children and young adults, it is such an important work that offers a diverse narrative within a still very white-washed literary canon, that it is especially important for children and youth to read. Walter Dean Myers in his essay “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” published in The New York Times, describes that in the books he read while growing up:

I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the ‘black’ representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me. Myers 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming is a step forward in developing children’s and YA literature into more of a mosaic by having more voices tell new and different stories. Myers argues books that offer more than one type of narrative humanizes those to fall outside the Eurocentric norm, and that for himself, they gave him “the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map” (Myers 2014). That is the potential power reading Brown Girl Dreaming can have on younger readers: it can validate experience and tell them their lives and stories matter and are important; it can encourage children to enter into the dialogue themselves and become active participants in their own lives. This is no small accomplishment.

Work Cited

Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York: Penguin Group, 2014. Print.

Isabel’s Chains

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers in 2008

Since reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel Speak, I’ve been wanting to read more by her. I picked up Chains during the Calgary Reads Book Sale and it sat on my shelf for a while. This wasn’t because I didn’t want to read it, quite the opposite. Chains follows Isabel, a slave in America during the 1760s, almost exactly one hundred years before the Abolition of Slavery in 1865. I knew this before reading it, and this is why I wasn’t rushing to pick it up. I knew Abolition wasn’t going to be the saviour in this story, so I assumed this would be a difficult read, especially with no promise of a happy ending (freedom) for Isabel. And I was right about it being a difficult read. But reading about slavery, even if it is historical fiction, shouldn’t be an easy read. Isabel’s story should make us uncomfortable and incredibly sad. And I shouldn’t want or demand a happy ending to make myself feel better, because for millions of once breathing human beings, who lived their entire lives as property, there was no happy ending.

Chains is incredible and different from other historical fiction about slavery in America I’ve read for several reasons. Often in narratives on this topic if it isn’t Abolition that swoops in to save the protagonists, its a caring white character. There are of course exceptions to this where the African slave does somehow manage to achieve freedom on their own, but even then usually there are some white characters who help them to do so. This often makes me uncomfortable, because it still places the power of agency strongly in white instead of black hands. Chains in much different.

The novel takes place during the American Revolutionary War. Both the rebel Americans and the British loyalists make promises to Isabel that if she passes on information, listens in on her masters’ conversations, finds valuable papers in her master’s home, smuggles information between those in prison and those on the outside (all things that could cost her her life if caught) they will secure her freedom. These are all empty promises. Both the rebels and the loyalists ultimately prove not to value Isabel’s life or their promises to her because she is a slave. Isabel realizes she cannot rely on these men for help, and she must take deadly risks to help herself.

There is a powerful scene in which an elderly aunt of the family that owns Isabel confesses on her deathbed the regret that she did not try harder to buy Isabel from her niece and nephew: “I should have demanded you be placed in my household. I was horrified by your treatment . . . I regret I did not force the matter” (261). Silence hangs in the air after this confession, and Isabel realizes the aunt is waiting for Isabel to expresses forgiveness, or gratitude. However, Isabel expresses something powerful to the reader “I tried to be grateful but could not. A body does not like being bought and sold like a basket of eggs, even if the person who cracks the shells is kind” (261). Here Isabel refuses to allow a slave owner to be cast as her guardian angel. Isabel will take charge of her own destiny.

Chains is a powerful novel that I would highly recommend. It is a thrilling narrative, and gives the opportunity of having a history lesson at the same time. If you become attached to Isabel and her journey (which is hard not to) you can continue with her as Chains is part of a trilogy called The Seeds of America Trilogy.