How can I explain to anyone / that stories / are like air to me, / over and over again….
Words are my brilliance.
~from Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (pp. 247-248)
So I’m reading a lot of books these days that fit in the MG/YA-books-about-young-girls-who-want-to-be-writers category. I reviewed Carolyn Meyer’s The Diary of a Waitress last week. And Margarita Engle’s The Wild Book, a book I reviewed some months ago now, also fits into this category. Like Kitty in Diary of a Waitress, Fefa in The Wild Book, and Jacqueline in Brown Girl Dreaming, I, too, have always said I want to be a writer. And I have no doubt that many of us, our kids, and our students feel the exact same way.
Okay, so it seems I have gotten a little off track here. It’s just that I get really excited to write about books about writing. Back to the review. Jacqueline Woodson‘s (2015) autobiographical Brown Girl Dreaming, a National Book Award winner published by Nancy Paulsen Books, can be summed up in one word: amazing. Or six: Everything I hoped it would be. I have at least 30 blue and pink sticky notes to help me remember all the ideas I have about this book when I share it with my English Education methods students on Tuesday.
Summary Jackie is born in Ohio in 1963 but soon moves with her mother and two older siblings to South Carolina, where she forms a close relationship with her maternal grandmother, a Jehovah’s Witness, and her grandfather, whom she calls “Daddy.” Jackie witnesses firsthand the unrest of the South at this time. But her life completely changes when her mom moves to New York City and, after a while, calls for the children to join her and their new baby brother. The theme of finding one’s home is central to this book-in-verse. But it is ultimately the struggle with a lack of permanence when it comes to one’s physical home that becomes pivotal in Jacqueline’s quest to be a writer. She writes, “But on paper, things can live forever” (Woodson, 2015, p. 249).
I’ve decided to change things up a bit in this review. Because I know so many of my readers are teachers, I decided to offer three teaching ideas after I share what I think are Brown Girl Dreaming‘s strengths.
(1) Brown Girl Dreaming is wonderful new addition to a recent trend in MG/YA books: books-in-verse. I love this about the book because the poems are quick and will make for wonderful read alouds. Of course, one could read the whole text aloud, but there are several poems that can be read aloud to students in isolation: “Composition Notebook,” “Paper,” “Writing #1,” “When I Tell My Family,” and “Reading.” Each of these pieces relate to the ELA block or class because they are about one recognizing his or her literacy practices. So here’s a lesson idea that has to do with poetry …. I was talking to my student teachers a few days ago about an activity I used to do with my sixth graders called poem manipulation (I saw an article about it in the English Journal after I did it with my students). Students are given a poem in Word and they can keep or change any word they want. It really helps students think about word choice, and the opportunity to keep or change words builds in some differentiation. “February 12, 1963” and “What I Believe” will work particularly well for this activity because students will have to consider the contexts into which they were born or their belief systems.
(2) Anyone who has moved during his or her childhood will be able to connect with Jacqueline’s struggles with place, and Woodson does such a beautiful job of helping readers understand that Jacqueline feels connected with each of her homes. They are what make her her. And this is so good for our children and students to hear. Having students connect with what they think of as their home (broadly defined) is important. I love thinking about integrating technology into the classroom, and Brown Girl Dreaming provides so many opportunities for students to explore how home relates to them in digital presentations. Students can create a podcast (try Podomatic) in which they share their family story. Woodson includes a collection of photographs in the back of her book, and students can create their own digital scrapbook (WordPress and Weebly offer free website hosting; I also love Animoto and Padlet). They can also add to their manipulation poems from above by adding hyperlinks of original photographs or relevant websites.
(3) One quality of an excellent book – any book, not just a MG or YA title – is its ability to exist on multiple levels. And Brown Girl Dreaming definitely does this. Woodson emphasizes simultaneously a girl who understands the tradition from which she comes and wants to change the future and a little girl who just wants to jump rope with her friend and write. That said, some of our students might read the book and only see a young girl who wants to be a writer (which is totally fine); others might want to delve deeper into the book’s historical and cultural contexts. Brown Girl Dreaming becomes very much a political text, especially in its last poems. If you emphasize social justice and critical literacy in your teaching, Brown Girl Dreaming will fit nicely into discussions about social activism and the power of one’s voice. Students could use Jackie’s writing as a mentor text when writing about a topic that relates to their community. There are so many current contemporary issues about which students could write.
I would love to hear what you think about Brown Girl Dreaming and/or these teaching ideas in the comments below!