Saturday, March 7, 2015

What’s Your Brilliance? (Part 1)

The dust is settling on the book awards season, and winners’ covers proclaim their awards. I was fortunate to get my hands on two very popular titles for young people. While they are completely different, they have one theme in common—a young person’s discovering what’s special about  themselves. Here are my reflections on the first book:

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson has been awarded the 2014 National Book Award—Young People’s Literature, the 2015 Newbery, a 2015 Coretta Scott King Honor, an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Work—Youth/Teens, and others. Why all the accolades? And what can I possibly add to the many more learned reviews that have already been written?

-brown girl dreaming has historical significance. It is a coming-of-age memoir written in free verse about growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s partly in the North and partly in the South. These were historic times in the Civil Rights Movement, and this book shows what a young girl thought about living in those times in those places. How to behave in certain places to avoid trouble—or should you go ahead and make trouble?
“At the fabric store, we are not Colored
or Negro. We are not thieves or shameful
or something to be hidden away.
At the fabric store, we’re just people.” (from “the fabric store,” p. 90-91)

By Unknown or not provided (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 -It is a book about who we are as family, and the ways family influences our identity. Aunts, uncles, brothers, sister, mother, father, and grandparents all played a part in making Woodson who she is today. Especially poignant is Woodson’s love for her maternal grandfather, expressed throughout the book, as in “sometimes, no words are needed:”
 “…My head against/my grandfather’s arm,
a blanket around us as we sit on the front porch swing.
Its whine like a song.”

-It is a book about finding one’s unique gift and figuring out what to do with it. Woodson’s brother could sing. Woodson’s sister was brilliant. Fortunately for us, Woodson found her gift in writing.
“I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them
then blow gently, watch them float
right out of my hands” (from “gifted,” p. 169).

The free verse format makes for easy reading that I want to read over and over again. On learning to write her name at age 3:
Will the words end, I ask
whenever I remember to.
Nope, my sister says, all of five years old now,
and promising me

infinity.” (from “the beginning,” p. 62-63)

Indian Girl Child 4970
By Biswarup Ganguly (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Like any life, there is stuggle and triumph, joy and sorrow.
“Maybe, I am thinking, there is something hidden
like this, in all of us. A small gift from the universe
waiting to be discovered” (from “hope onstage,” p. 233).

Woodson’s words are sure to help other young people—of any color—look for and find their own brilliance.

For more about Woodson, here's an NPR interview.

(Stay tuned for Part 2)


  1. I've been curious about this book. Thanks for the sneak peak! What's your take on the line between autobiography and memoir, and then the line between memoir and historical fiction?

  2. Wow, Debbie, thanks for commenting and thanks for the tough questions! Just off the cuff, I would say that autobiography generally covers one's entire life, but memoir is more focused and more personal. A memoir can certainly bleed into fiction, since you are reading what one person remembers and wants to share, and we probably all twist our memories to our own favor! But in general, a memoir is considered non-fiction. These are great topics! Maybe I will explore them later in my blog.

  3. It would be interesting to explore the differences between those genres! When I first started hearing about Brown Girl Dreaming I thought it was historical fiction based on Jacqueline Woodson's childhood. Later I heard or saw it categorized as memoir.