Brown Girl Dreaming

Woodson, Jacqueline. 2014. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York: Penguin.

Despite the title, Brown Girl Dreaming is most certainly not just a book for brown girls or girls.  Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir-in-verse relates her journey to discover her passion for writing. Her story is framed by her large, loving family within the confines of the turbulent Civil Rights Era.

Sometimes a book is so well-received, so popular, that it seems that enough has been said (and said well); anything else would just be noise. Rather than add another Brown Girl Dreaming review to the hundreds of glowing ones already in print and cyberspace, I offer you links to other sites, interviews and reviews related to Brown Girl Dreaming.  And, I’ll pose a question on memoirs in children’s literature.

First, the links:

And now something to ponder:

As a librarian who often helps students in choosing books for school assignments, I have written many times about the dreaded biography assignment – excessive page requirements,  narrow specifications, etc.

Obviously, a best choice for a children’s book is one written by a noted children’s author. Sadly, many (by no means all!) biographies are formula-driven, series-type books that are not nearly as engaging as ones written by the best authors.  Rare is the author of young people’s literature who writes an autobiography for children as Ms. Woodson has done.  When such books exist, they are usually memoirs focusing only on the author’s childhood years.  This is perfectly appropriate because the reader can relate to that specified period of a person’s lifetime.  Jon Sciezska wrote one of my favorite memoirs for children, Knucklehead, and Gary Paulsen’s, How Angel Peterson Got his Name also comes to mind as a stellar example.  These books, however, don’t often fit the formula required to answer common student assignment questions, i.e., birth, schooling, employment, marriages, accomplishments, children, death. Students are reluctant to choose a book that will leave them with a blank space(s) on an assignment.

I wonder what teachers, other librarians and parents think about this. Must the biography assignment be a traditional biography, or can a memoir (be it in verse, prose, or graphic format) be just as acceptable?  I hate to see students turn away from a great book because it doesn’t fit the mold.  If we want students to be critical thinkers, it’s time to think outside the box and make room for a more varied, more diverse selection of books.

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3 thoughts on “Brown Girl Dreaming

  1. Hear, hear! I love your thoughts on what is or isn’t appropriate for the biography assignment. I can only comment as a parent, but I definitely struggled with this with my son. I kept giving him great books with true stories about real people, and he kept saying they wouldn’t work because they weren’t “biographies.” It was frustrating for both of us to try to find something that fit the required definition, and he ended up doing it just for the assignment instead of reading something he truly cared about and thinking deeply about it. In addition, he also decided as a result of that experience that he hates biographies, and he won’t go back now to revisit any of the others he was initially interested in. I’d say that definition of biography and that particular assignment did far more harm than good, and the more we can give kids personal choice and freedom on both subject matter and format the better off we’ll all be.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I try to connect with teachers whenever possible and let them know the unexpected “downstream” effects of some school assignments (not enough books available on the topic, books out of print, nothing available that meets the page requirements, etc.). Many teachers are happy to reconsider assignment paramters; some are not. I think it never hurts to politely mention your child’s experience to his teacher. Hopefully, your son will try again.

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