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Middle Grade Monday – Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

I’m finally going to weigh in with my thoughts on the lyrical, breathtaking work of art that is Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. Not that you really need my opinion. It has received, at last count, six starred reviews from major review publications, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Horn Book, School Library Journal, and the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (I hope I didn’t miss one.) And, oh, it so deserves those stars.

Let me be all hipster for a moment and talk about my love for Jacqueline Woodson’s writing. My first year as a middle school librarian was a difficult one, due in large part to my co-librarian, who was a nightmare. But I will be forever grateful to her for introducing me to Jacqueline Woodson’s books. The first one I read was If You Come Softly, and I was immediately captivated. I read everything she had written to that point. Obviously, I was delighted when I found that she would be at my state’s school library association meeting. I got to her session early enough to get a seat on the front row! And then…I was dismayed to find that only half the seats were filled for the session. How could people skip it? Didn’t they know what they were missing? If I’m calculating correctly, this was fifteen years ago. So yes, I liked her books before she was ‘famous.’ I’m such a hipster.

Over the years I’ve kept up with her books. I was so pleased when she began to write picture books. They are as lovely, if not more so, than her novels. And then I caught word of Brown Girl Dreaming. Someone I knew had an ARC. I haunted NetGalley and Edelweiss until it became available as an electronic ARC, and then I gleefully pounced with my request. I was delighted when I was granted access, and my hopes were not disappointed. This memoir in verse is everything I could have hoped for from Woodson. In it she tells the story of growing up as an African American during the 60s and 70s, spending time both in New York and South Carolina. She addresses topics that are at once universal and intimately personal. Her writing (which has consistently improved with each publication) is breathtaking. I want this book to win ALL THE AWARDS – NBA, Newbery, Coretta Scott King – all of them!

We finally got our copies in last week, and I rushed to get them ready for my sixth grade classes. This was the test, I knew. I normally don’t have any trouble getting the sixth graders to engage with the novels I book talk, but this one was different. I wanted to make sure they understood just how amazing it is, so I read them one of my favorite passages. From page 61, the passage is titled “the reader”

When we can’t find my sister, we know
she is under the kitchen table, a book in her hand,
a glass of milk and a small bowl of peanuts beside her.

We know we can call Odella’s name out loud,
slap the table hard with our hands,
dance around it singing
“She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain”
so many times the song makes us sick
and the circling makes us dizzy
and still
my sister will do nothing more
than slowly turn the page. 

When I finished, there were gasps of appreciation from the students. Their eyes were universally fixed on me. The looks on their faces were all I needed to see. And that, my friends, is the true test.