Book Review: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This memoir-in-verse is an absolute gem.  The whole time I read it, I wished I were a middle school English teacher so that I could assign it and then talk about it for a month.  But, since I haven’t the patience to be a teacher (nor even the time to write a really long review), here’s a few thoughts instead.

Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: *****  (5 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars.  This is a memoir.)

Overall: **** 1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 10 and up

The general subject of Brown Girl Dreaming is a simple one.  Jacqueline Woodson (award-winning author of Feathers and many other good books) remembers her earliest childhood days, growing up in both the North and South in the ’60s and ’70s.  Starting with her birth to the Woodsons in Ohio, she chronicles the separation of her parents, a big move down to her mother’s old home in South Carolina, summers with her grandparents, and then the beginnings of a life in New York City.  Five parts of the book categorize these phases in Woodson’s memory, and the pieces of her childhood are remembered through easy-flowing poems, each only a page or two long.  

Aunts, uncles, neighbors, and family friends filter in and out of the cast of characters, while Jacqueline writes about her mother, grandparents, and siblings in evocative detail.  Sometimes when you read a great work of fiction, you start to feel like the imaginary characters were once real people.  In Brown Girl Dreaming, these very real people have such memorable personalities I had to remind myself that they weren’t just made up to suit the story.  

 It’s obvious that Jacqueline had a keen observant eye even before she could read.  Re-told conversations and scenes between grown-ups give the reader an idea of what it was like to grow up during a big push in the civil rights movement, even when most of the action happened on the periphery of the Woodson siblings’ younger lives.  Little moments in the South, where passive-aggressive hostilities still ran rampant even after segregation was technically supposed to be over, made me grit my teeth in frustration, while the hopeful forward-movement inspired by Jacqueline’s mother and her friends buoyed my spirits.  There’s a great image of Jacqueline and her friend walking around NYC with their fists in the air like Angela Davis, and also a wonderfully moving poem which compares the revolution to a carousel: history always being made somewhere, while different people have a part in it. 

But, this being a memoir about her own experiences, the political atmosphere is enveloped by a narrative about growing up.  Jacqueline grows to find her voice, to discover a love of words, and to see how her family’s every-day lives can be the stuff of wonderful stories.  She’s not just a Brown Girl Dreaming, she’s a brown girl learning, speaking, changing, and – most importantly – writing.  And all that scribbling in notebooks has definitely payed off; the simplicity of these poems doesn’t diminish the strength of their message.  In fact, each word seems carefully chosen to reflect the temperament of her thoughts at the time.  It’s rare to read a memoir in which the grown-up writer can conjure up visions of her childhood without a tint of romanticism or regret.  I feel like I got a chance to meet the real child Jacqueline Woodson once was, and to hear her voice as though she was speaking just to me.  For this reason, even though there wasn’t a hugely dramatic plot, I found the entire story enchanting.

While the time-period was tumultuous, and the Woodson siblings had to keep picking up their lives as they moved, this is not a melodramatic story.  The poems are written with an earnest, child-like simplicity that captures the tone of happy summer evenings and anxious walks to school.  There are funny memories, and profound moments, and a general warmth of spirit throughout the whole book.  I loved little Jackie. I loved her family, because it was impossible not to feel how much she loved them, too.  Memory is a tricky thing, and that’s a big theme throughout Brown Girl Dreaming: the logical conclusions we draw as children don’t always hold up against reality.  I can only imagine how much digging Woodson must have had to do –through her own recollections, as well as the history of her families and the places where she once lived – in order to distill this sincere memoir from her past.  I’m very grateful that she gave it so much thought, because the resulting book was an absolute pleasure to read.

I will be recommending Brown Girl Dreaming to pretty much every child/parent/teacher who enters my store.  It’s thoughtful, it’s funny, and it’s easy to relate to Jacqueline even though she grew up in a much different time than this one.  Anyone who has ever called more than one place home; who has worried about their parents; competed with their siblings; and tried to figure out how they fit into their world, will see something of themselves in these poems.  I have too many favorite poems to list, all dog-eared in my book. (I try never to wrinkle the pages but too bad!  These pages need to be remembered.)  Once the book officially hits shelves on August 28, I’ll probably be reading certain pieces at unsuspecting customers.  And as long as my terrible elocution doesn’t drive them away, I think this book will be a hit.  There’s lots to talk about in it, and even more to enjoy.

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Book Review: The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

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A great ensemble cast and a middle-school heist. I really wish Varian Johnson had written The Great Greene Heist while I was in middle-school, because it turns that joyless institution into the setting for some thrilling escapades.

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 9 and up

This was a fun, fast-paced book about navigating through the equally fraught realms of friendships and cons. Jackson Greene is a lovable swindler. His heists and schemes follow an ethical code and never stray too far from the realm of academic life. He’s the sort of wise-cracking scamp and rambunctious genius everyone wishes they could be – neither afraid to show his smarts nor ashamed to accept help when it’s needed. It was tons of fun to hang out with him and his crew as I read about their complicated quest to bend the rules and and serve some justice.

The nature of crime and corruption in The Great Greene Heist are low-key enough to save plenty of room for humor and misadventures. Jackson and Gaby de la Cruz used to be close friends – in fact, there was a chance they might become something more – but now they’re not talking, even though her brother Charlie is Jackson’s best friend. Things are awkward between them, but that doesn’t mean that Jackson can just stand by while a spoiled, smug scum-bag like Keith Sinclair rigs the student elections out of Gaby’s favor. Sure, Jackson’s sworn off cons ever since he got caught bending one too many of the school’s laws. But for a friend, even the risk to his own future security is worth the effort. Plus, it’s obvious after only a few pages that Jackson is at his best and brightest when planning something spectacular, splashy, and of questionable legality. It runs in the Greene family: from his grifter grandfather’s Code of Conduct to his ultra-cool older brother’s history of impressive plays. So he pulls together a team of the very best from each social sphere of Maplewood school, and prepares to pull one over the students and administration who think money can buy results away from the most dedicated candidate around.

A great ensemble cast can sell me on even the most questionable plot or writing, and this wasn’t even a very questionable book. Sure, some elements of the story could possibly be out of touch: I’m not sure if school elections and basketball games can really make or break someone’s social life anymore. An awful lot rides on new video games and rumors, while I don’t think middle-schoolers are quite so easy to impress nowadays. But I could suspend my disbelief and follow the hi-jinks with mirthful curiosity, because I liked how all the different characters played their parts. There’s that certain appeal in stories like Ocean’s Eleven, in which success rides on the combined efforts of a dynamic team. Drama from within, as strong personalities clash, amps up the stakes while keeping our emotional investment going strong. Since Jackson Greene’s various cons really only have an affect on peoples’ social, academic, and extra-curricular lives – there are no loaded guns or ticking bombs here – a lot was riding on the characters.

Luckily, it’s a really cool gang. These kids defy all sorts of stereotypes, while letting their weird interests and skills speak for themselves. There’s a trekkie techie with a secret crush on the school’s hottest cheerleader. And that cheerleader happens to be a “science goddess,” too. Charlie de la Cruz has reporting skills which keep him observant, while his sister’s devotion to what’s fair and right makes her the unequivocal best candidate in the school’s political race. New recruits include the small and fearless Bradley Boardman, and their necessary “bankroll,” Victor Cho. And everyone is necessary, because while Jackson Greene has more than enough charisma and smarts to go around, the heist he plans to pull will require teamwork, under-cover excursions, and some nifty gadgets.

Too bad not everyone’s as loyal as our hero. When Keith Sinclair and the school’s utterly despicable principal get wind that their own nefarious plans are at risk from this colorful crew, they set out to shut down operations. It was easy to root for Jackson’s team as events lead to a complicated and satisfying denouement at the school dance. The omniscient point of view lets the reader see the injustices going down in shady offices and in abandoned hallways, so when things threaten to go south for our heroes I couldn’t help cringing in anticipation. But these kids are smart, they’re funny, and they’ll not give up easily.

The Great Greene Heist is a great example of how a story can be thoughtfully diverse and also full of mainstream appeal. I particularly enjoyed how they took advantage of the fact that adults rarely take kids as seriously as they should, turning some teachers’ innate racism and condescension against them. There’s a great scene in which the secretary can’t tell the difference between Asian boys, so it’s her own fault when they trick her with some absurdly easy disguises. Kids tricking grown-ups never gets old, especially when that sort of casual profiling happens all the time to young people who deserve much better. Cultural differences are recognized and celebrated, but no one acts as a “token” attempt at diversity. Even though it’s not a long book, each character had their own clear motives, worries, and full personalities. They just are how they are, and they look how they look, and they’re too busy taking over the school to worry about it.

All in all, this was a fun book which manages to make middle-school life exciting. I think anyone going through those years of special misery would love Jackson Greene’s swagger. He’s exactly the sort of person I wish I could have been back then. All the characters felt like my own group of friends by the end, and I hope we’ll see more of them in the future. I also want to read more about Jackson’s family and their history of adventures! His brother and grandfather had small roles, but totally piqued my interest. The easy writing style, fast pace, and memorable characters in The Great Greene Heist stole my attention completely. I highly recommend it to middle-schoolers looking for a fun and easy diversion, or even for strong readers in elementary school who need to psyche themselves up for the years ahead. If middle-school could only be half so exciting in real life.