Genre: Memoir in Verse
Grade Level: 7-12
Interest Level: 8-12
Themes: identity, coming of age, family, love, friendship,
Awards: Coretta Scott King Award, John Newbery Medal, National Book Award for Young People's Literature, NAACP Award for Outstanding Literary Work - Youth/Teens
Just the title made me want to read Jacqueline Woodson's latest work(and because I love everything Jacqueline Woodson). I, like Crystal Paul, of Bustle, learned many things growing up as a black girl reading books about white people. Mostly I learned that black girls, brown girls, black/brown people didn't belong in books. Although I never consciously questioned this reality, subconsciously, I knew like many marginalized groups of people, it was because my life, my stories, were not important, they didn't matter. I too drew pictures of little blond haired, blue -eyed girls in my stories for school and dreamed of the day that I would grow up to be a princess like the ones in my books. I was a brown girl dreaming, unfortunately, the princess in my dreams didn't match the princess in my mirror.
Thank the book gods that Jacqueline Woodson's childhood in verse is filled with the kind of eloquent stories, images and word pictures that validate blackness, and little brown girls dreaming of stories where they belong. It is an accessible, eloquent glimpse into the reality of a little girl learning to grow and find her place in the world.
Woodson's works are wonderful for responsive instruction and this book is no different. Structured in five parts there are multiple ELA lessons on structure, theme, characterization, conflict, imagery, word choice and of course endless poetry lessons. Because it is in five parts each section could be read independently. The poems can be read independently as well, or grouped thematically without reading the entire book. It is full of lessons for social studies, on civil rights, protest, the northern migration of blacks, religious studies as Woodson was raised Jehovah's Witness, and comparing/contrasting life in the south vs. life in the north. The text can also be compared/contrasted with other texts, both fiction and non-fiction from various time periods historical and contemporary, as a way to explore themes, ideas and social realities.
There are many wonderful opportunities for authentic discussion of culture in this text. In how to listen #2, one of several haikus in the book, Woodson recalls "in the stores downtown, we're always followed around, just because we're brown" This poem is simple enough to use with primary grades, and/or can be used along with other poems in the book, not only to discuss prejudice and discrimination, in the 60's/70's, but to compare to current events. In hair night, Woodson takes us to a familiar scene in many a black kitchen on a Saturday night, and the smells of biscuits, burning hair and Dixie Peach hair grease seem to float up from the page. Though this remembrance will ring true for many little brown girls, it is a wonderful opportunity to discuss/compare/contrast, the significance of hair in various cultural groups. Hair is deeply rooted to identity in many cultures and should not be viewed as a superficial trait. Woodson even provides an opportunity to juxtapose the significance of hair within the black community. In the selection afros, when her uncle comes over with his hair "blown out into an afro" a young Woodson begs her mother for the same hairstyle. Even today the "state" of black hair is controversial in the black community. Straightened, natural, cornrows, locs, long or short, the ways in which blacks choose to represent their identity through their hair continues to cause discussion/controversy. This selection moves to further paint a picture of the larger social context of the time, when black was becoming beautiful and black families all over the country were validated and affirmed by the black people and music of Soul Train on Saturdays.
In miss bell and the marchers, Woodson opens the door to Miss Bell's house where civil rights marchers are having a meeting. Woodson thinks maybe the people bringing foil covered dishes as they arrive, are gathering for a prayer meeting, until she sees them close the blinds. The turmoil of the south and the civil rights movement weaves its way through the book with the grace of Miss Bell, "And even though Miss Bell works for a white lady who said 'I will fire you in a minute if I ever see you on that line!' Miss Bell knows that marching isn't the only thing she can do, knows that people fighting need full bellies to think and safe places to gather." Not only is Woodson witness to the grace of Miss Bell but the power of Angela Davis, and in power to the people, young Jacqueline and her best friend Maria walk through the streets of Brooklyn with their fists raised in the air Angela Davis style.
Woodson's remembrances are many more than hair and protests. We walk with her along the streets of Brooklyn and sit on the front porch in South Carolina with her grandparents. We are with her at the Kingdom Hall meetings, and at her best friend Marias house eating arroz con habichuelas and tostones. We get to see, hear and touch the entirety of Woodson's world with delight, curiosity, sadness, joy and remembering.
Take a walk. Take a ride. Go get this book.