Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Book Review Club: March 2015

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@Barrie Summy

Sorry I missed last month--there was the small matter of a slip on the ice and a broken hip. This month, feet up, my only recreation is reading. There are worse fates. 

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By Jacqueline Woodson
Penguin/Nancy Paulson Books, 2014
Ages 10 and up

Whatever you do, don't tell a potential young reader that BROWN GIRL DREAMING is a book in verse. (WHY do so many of us think poetry will be boring?) If the kid picks up the book and freaks out at the unusual amount of white space, say “Just read one page.” You'll probably end up with a poetry fan on your hands.

From page one:

I am born not long from the time
or far from the place
my great-great-grandparents
worked the deep rich land
dawn till dusk
drank cool water from scooped out gourds
looked up and followed
the sky's mirrored constellation
to freedom.

I am born as the South explodes ….

Seriously, kid, how can you resist? Give this book a chance.

BROWN GIRL DREAMING won the National Book Award and a Newbery honor—with good reason. It's gem-like, heartwarming, funny, sad, sneaky, inspiring, and addictive. You may very well read it in one sitting, although you'll want to re-read it. These poems live and breathe.

Full disclosure: There's not a lot of action, and as I read I kept wondering if I would have objected to that at age 10.  (I so hope I wouldn’t have.)

Nor is this a polemic on race relations in the '60s and beyond, although it certainly offers insights. (Most chilling: If you were leaving South Carolina and your skin was brown, you had to go at night to avoid being stopped and beaten.) I’m praying the book's title won’t relegate it to the sixth grade civil rights unit—kids should be free to love it in its own right.

BROWN GIRL DREAMING is the epitome of “show don't tell”—not so much a factual memoir as a direct experience of American girlhood, regardless of race and almost regardless of era. Being sketched in verse somehow heightens the impact.

It's got everything: sibling rivalry, hair, school troubles, an uncomfortable religion, the pros and cons of a dominant family, the death of a beloved grandfather, the fear that your best friend has found someone she likes better.

Also a mother sneaking out in white gloves to sit at a segregated lunch counter. But the best friend makes more of an impression.

The first controversy in young Jackie's life is that her father wants to name her “Jack,” after him. “Name a girl Jack/and people will look at her twice, my father said.” (To his annoyance, the women insist on Jacqueline.) Also, she's the family's second daughter: “... My older brother takes one look/ inside the pink blanket, says,/ Take her back. We already have one of those.”

Later, when mother and children have gone to live with the South Carolina grandparents, leaving Jack behind in Ohio, the father's absence is “like a bubble in my older brother's life,/ that pops again and again/into a whole lot of tiny bubbles/of memory.”

The South Carolina poems are idyllic—breezes are fragrant, the family so strong that its members simply rise above the fact that it's not safe to shop at Woolworth's or ride in the front of the bus, regardless of the law. When the scene shifts to Brooklyn, Jackie begins to experience universal growing pains: difficulties in school (especially following a brilliant older sister), a mother who's just a tad stricter than most, a church (Jehovah's Witnesses) that makes the Woodson kids walk out on birthday celebrations at school.

But also there are joys: A Puerto Rican best friend whose family absorbs Jackie and feeds her arroz con pollo; the dawning realization that, despite her school troubles, she is destined to be a writer.

Sprinkled in between the longer poems are numbered three-liners called “How to Listen.” Here's #9:

Under the back porch
there's an alone place I go
writing all I've heard.

Thank heavens for that alone place, and for this beautiful book.

Dear FCC: I got an autographed copy of this book because I donated to We Need Diverse Books. Which we do.