If you are an adult reading this review, go out and buy this for your child or grandchild, but read it yourself first. Brown Girl Dreaming is Jacqueline Woodson's memoir written for children in the middle grades, but it is appropriate for all ages, right up to the senior citizen. It is written in verse, and reveals her life as she moved from the South to New York in a single parent family, a problem that was rare when she was young, but one that would become prevalent in the black community, as well as the rest of the world, as decades passed. The book illustrated the path that led to progress and positive changes in the world of people of color and also indicated the failures and slow deterioration that developed in that society as well.
For me, this book was nostalgic, since a piece of it takes place in Brooklyn, and the author actually lived on Herzl Street, in Brooklyn, where my good friend Pearl lived when I was growing up, about a decade earlier. Many of her descriptions of games and neighborhoods were familiar to me and brought back so many happy memories. We shared a time, a place and a joy of living that is often absent in that neighborhood today. I was totally ignorant of the problems that existed, when I was young, and no young person today should grow up as ignorant of that struggle or of any other major struggle, for that matter, such as the Holocaust, as well.
Her lyrical presentation describes the history of the Civil Rights struggle in America succinctly and clearly. Middle grade children should have no problem understanding her underlying message of hope and also of despair. However, it would be better if the book was used as a teaching tool so that the political, social and moral conscience of the book could be further developed. The profound concepts, expressed so gently through Woodson’s memories, impart an understanding of the times that would be more accessible with the aid of an instructor. The poetry of her message will fill the reader with questions and also with wonder. In spite of so much hardship, there was optimism and hope that seems missing today. That is really the broader discussion that should arise for adults who read the book and the learning experience that a teacher could help the children obtain. How can the situation be improved? What are we doing wrong in society? What are the implications of history, then and now? Has any real progress been made? At some point do those persecuted assume they are now entitled to more than equal opportunity to make up for lost time and is it their due? Are these legitimate questions? They cannot be understood by a child without the help of an adult, and an adult should read it to become more aware and intimately involved with the problems clearly expressed in the book that are still being faced today.
The author and I had a lot in common, and yet we were worlds apart. We were brought up in the same area, perhaps a decade apart. We played together in the street, regardless of age or sex. We felt safe, except perhaps for the duck and cover of the Cold War air raid practice sirens. We experienced the same newsreels and world events. We both have a genetic gap in our front teeth. We both had someone in our lives who inspired us, who taught us right from wrong, good from bad behavior, honesty vs. dishonesty, proper language and appropriate dress, so that we presented a positive face to the world. So, we were not, and are still not, so different, after all. The answer to how to make those worlds come together again in a color blind way, may simply lie within the pages of this little, unassuming book. Anger, bias and hate is largely absent from it. In the hands of skilled teachers or open-minded readers, peace may finally be achievable for all people, no matter how different they are, if only they are willing to learn from mistakes and move on.
Of course, this may sound Pollyanna to many, and maybe it is even like wishful, unrealistic thinking, but it only takes one dedicated person to make a change, as Martin Luther King surely proved, as Ghandi surely proved. Evil exists only if we let it. This book gave me hope for the existence of its opposite. It reminded me of the idealism of my youth, a time when I believed the world could be a better place, although it was also a time when outside influences also often convinced me that it could not.
Perhaps we should all lose ourselves in hopefulness, rather than hopelessness. Jacqueline Woodson found her place in life, her gift to give to the world. Shout it from the rooftops that we are all family and provide the equality to all that has been guaranteed by law, but is still out of reach to so many because of ignorance and hate. Wipe out the ignorance and the hate will surely disappear as well. Believe in the ultimate goodness of people, rather than in judgment based on narrow-minded ideas about color, religion and station in life.