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.

Flora & Ulysses!

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by K. G. Campbell

Published by Candlewick Press in 2013

I’m lucky to be studying children’s literature. When I’m asked what my favorite books are it’s impossible to narrow a list down because I LOVE so much of what I read. Usually I just name the most recent things I’ve read, because I’m weekly finding a new favorite.

However, if some cruel person forced me to actually put together a list, Flora and Ulysses would be on it. No question. It’s been nearly a year since I first read it, and after returning to it again this week, I was renewed with affection for it.

It was the winner of the 2014 Newbery Award, generally received raving reviews, and spent weeks on many bestsellers lists. So I’m not the only one who loves it. The narrative is told through both text and comics, which I argue makes for a broad potential reading audience.

Flora is “a natural born cynic” who loves to read comic books, especially The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto! and TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU!

Ulysses is a squirrel. He starts out as an ordinary squirrel who mostly thinks and cares about food. But one fateful day the squirrel is sucked up by Mrs. Tickham’s Ulysses 2000x powered vacuum. Due to quick thinking on the part of Flora, who gives the seemingly dead squirrel mouth to mouth, the squirrel is reborn as Ulysses who can do things he’d never been able to do before. Like think about more than food. Like fly. Like . . . other things I won’t spoil.

Could Flora have possibly found a REAL LIFE SUPERHERO?

Ulysses is the most enchanting animal character I have read in years. I always appreciate a good animal character, as I am an animal lover (if you haven’t already noticed through my irrational love of my dog Wallace). Animal characters often pull the strongest on my heart strings, and I (confession) am often more attached to the animal than human characters.

Toto from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite animal characters. In gray Kansas, Toto is what brings Dorothy joy. Toto is also the driving force for most of the plot. Dorothy is transported to Oz because she runs into her house, instead of the storm shelter, to get Toto. Dorothy misses the air balloon ride back to Kansas with the Wizard because Toto jumps out and Dorothy jumps out after him. So basically, Toto is the most important character. My favorite quote from the whole book is: “Toto did not really care whether he was in Kansas or the Land of Oz so long as Dorothy was with him.” Wallace is 100% my Toto.

Another favorite is Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. I have read this book over and over, and watched the film version over and over. Each time I cry my eyes out over my love of Wilbur, and decide to give up bacon (which usually only lasts a few weeks). My favorite quote about Wilbur’s love for Fern is: “he planned to stand perfectly still and think of what it was like to be alive, and to wait for Fern.” Wallace is totally my Wilbur.

Why is Ulysses as loveable as Toto and Wilbur? Because he ADORES Flora. Like Toto, Ulysses doesn’t really care about the plans Flora makes, just that Flora is happy and that he gets to be with her. And like Wilbur, when Ulysses is separated from Flora, all he can think about is getting back to her. Again, I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises that make reading this book so fun, but the friendship between Flora and Ulysses is what makes this book so incredibly lovely.

florasquirrel

The narrative is also filled with hilariously odd characters that electrify the book. For example:

  • Eleven year old William Spiver is doing such a good job of pretending to be blind he actually believes he is, and says things like “Flora Belle? What a lovely, melodious name” and “Surely you jest!”
  • There’s old Dr. Meescham who listens to opera, misses her lately passed husband the other Dr. Meescham, talks about life as a girl in Blundermeecen.
  • Flora’s mother, and villain to the story for she cannot understand why Flora keeps sneaking a squirrel into the house, writes romance novels, irrationally loves her shepherdess lamp, and is struggling to navigate recently being divorced.

The whole cast of characters (including those I don’t mention) are vibrant, allowing DiCamillo to create a complex and exciting world.

The back cover suggests reading ages for Flora and Ulysses of 11 to 13 years old. I think this books can appeal to readers both under 11 and over 13. Being part comic, the images allows the book to be accessible to younger readers. The writing is straight forward enough that early elementary aged children could read it on their own, or it could read with parents. I imagine this would be a fun book for parents to read to their children (I would have LOVED for my mom to have read this to me. She would have done an awesome job with the voices).

The book ends with the possibility of there being more adventures of Flora and Ulysses. After reading (click here if I’ve inspired you), I’m sure you, like me will be wishing on every shooting star that this happens sooner rather than later.