Brown Girl Dreaming (Newbery Honor Book)
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014
352 pp., $17.99
Carissa Turner Smith
Brown Girl Dreaming
As a school-age child, the protagonist of Jacqueline Woodson's memoir Brown Girl Dreaming struggles with being compared to her "gifted" older sister, especially when it comes to reading.
The teacher says.
Too babyish, the teacher says.
But I don't want to read faster or older or
any way else that might
make the story disappear too quickly from where
inside my brain,
a part of me.
However, when Woodson's mother takes her to the library every Monday afternoon, she has the freedom to read as she pleases, and she credits that Monday afternoon liberty with leading her to Stevie, a picture book published in 1969 that brought its 19-year-old author John Steptoe national fame (Steptoe would go on to write Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, a Caldecott Honor Book and Coretta Scott King Award winner).
If someone had been fussing with me
to read like my sister, I might have missed
the picture book filled with brown people, more
brown people than I'd ever seen
in a book before.
If someone had taken
that book out of my hand
said, You're too old for this
I'd never have believed
that someone who looked like me
could be in the pages of the book
that someone who looked like me
had a story.
If somebody is fussing with you to read like an adult, saying that you're too old to read YA or—even worse!—"middle grade" books, you might miss the richly layered portrait of identity in Woodson's poetic memoir. Brown Girl Dreaming recently won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, and Woodson has long been established as a children's and young adult author, but one of the most notable things about the book is the way in which it suggests that we are all multiple ages at once. As the protagonist of Sandra Cisneros's short story "Eleven" complains, "What they don't understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you're eleven, you're also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one."
Not only can we have multiple ages jostling around in us at the same time, but our identities are made up of multiple voices. Unlike in some children's and adolescent—and, to be fair, some adult—books, in Brown Girl Dreaming, identity isn't just a matter of finding some true, individual self buried under the layers of social conditioning; rather, the words that others say become a part of "you." Jacqueline's freedom from age restrictions allows her to find her "own" voice, but your voice, as Woodson astutely suggests throughout Brown Girl Dreaming, is never entirely your own. It is formed by all sorts of voices—voices of family, voices of the radio, voices of civil rights leaders, voices of writers who look like you and writers who don't (Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant is the other work given credit for shaping the young Jacqueline's voice, and she lets the book become a part of her by memorizing every single word in it).
Woodson's portrayal of Jacqueline's debt to Steptoe and Wilde places her within an African American literary tradition in which the acquisition of literacy prompts the dawning of a new sense of identity. Brown Girl Dreaming belongs on the shelf not only in the company of children's books like Stevie but also alongside adult works like W. E. B. Du Bois' 1903 classic The Souls of Black Folk. If Du Bois' work is especially memorable for its concept of African American double-consciousness—the "sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity"—then Woodson's work is notable for exploring other forms of double-selfhood, forms that aren't necessarily a direct result of racism. Racism manifests in Woodson's world—she mentions restaurants and stores in Greenville, South Carolina, that treated African American customers with suspicion and hostility—but her protagonist Jacqueline's identity emerges in the context of her family and of their neighborhoods, not primarily in response to white-dominated society. Jacqueline's experiences of a doubled or conflicted identity result more from moving from Ohio to South Carolina to New York (though, in the 1960s and 1970s, these places have different assumptions about what it means to be "brown"), and her sense of being excluded or "other" is primarily due to her childhood religious identity as a Jehovah's Witness.