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56 pages 1 hour read

Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming

Nonfiction | Novel/Book in Verse | Middle Grade | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Brown Girl Dreaming (2014) is a memoir in verse by Jacqueline Woodson, a children’s and young adult fiction writer. Published by Nancy Paulsen Books, a division of the Penguin Group, the memoir won the National Book Award, the Newberry Honor Book Award, and the Coretta Scott King Award.

Plot Summary

Brown Girl Dreaming covers Woodson’s childhood, detailing her family history and her beginnings as a writer. Woodson was born in Columbus, Ohio, on February 12, 1963, the youngest of three siblings. Her older brother Hope is named after her paternal grandmother, and her older sister Odella is named after her maternal uncle, Odell, who was killed in a car accident. Woodson herself is named Jacqueline as a compromise between her parents: Her father had wanted to name her Jack, after himself, but MaryAnn, her mother, had insisted on a more feminine name.

The first section of the book covers Woodson’s infancy in Ohio, and the history of her paternal family there. Woodson’s paternal grandparents live in Nelsonville, a town near Columbus, and Woodson and her family often visit them there. In “the woodsons of ohio,” her father’s family traces its history back to Thomas Woodson of Chillicothe, “said to be / the first son / of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings” (8). They are a family of “doctors and lawyers and teachers / athletes and scholars and people in government.” Woodson’s mother is from Greenville, South Carolina, and she misses her own family there. She forms a bond with Hope, her mother-in-law, who also has family in Greenville.

Woodson’s mother would prefer to live in the South near her own family, while Woodson’s father would prefer that his children be raised up North. This disagreement eventually leads to their separation and divorce. Woodson’s mother takes her children to Greenville permanently to live with their grandparents Georgiana and Gunnar, and Woodson’s father drops out of their life for many years. Woodson and her siblings learn to call Gunnar, their grandfather, “Daddy.” Woodson comes to love the fertile landscape of the South, and the sense of community in their neighborhood, Nicholtown, a Black suburb of Greenville. At the same time, the South is where she first begins to experience racial prejudice, and to become aware of the Black struggle for civil rights.

Woodson’s mother is restless in their new home, and begins to make regular trips to New York City. She leaves Woodson and her siblings in the care of their grandparents, and their grandmother, a Jehovah’s Witness, begins to give them religious instruction. She makes them attend regular Bible study groups, and limits their interactions with the other neighborhood children. Woodson’s mother writes her children one day to tell them both that they are about to move to New York City soon as a family, and that they are about to have a new baby brother. She returns to South Carolina with her new baby, Roman, before taking her family up North. Woodson does not warm to Roman, and is sad at the idea of leaving the South and her grandparents.

The family’s first few months in New York City are challenging. They must move out of the Brooklyn apartment that Woodson’s mother has found for them, after the ceiling collapses in the bathroom. They live for a time in the same building as Aunt Kay and her boyfriend Bernie, and find a community of transplanted Southerners in the city. Then Aunt Kay dies after a fall down a flight of stairs, and the family moves once more. Woodson is comforted by the arrival of her Uncle Robert in the city; she also remains connected to her Southern grandmother through her ongoing Jehovah’s Witness studies. After Roman becomes ill from eating lead paint, Woodson and her older siblings return to Greenville for the summer, while Roman recuperates in the hospital. Woodson’s grandfather, Gunnar, is ill from lung cancer, and has become frail and bedridden; Woodson has a sense of being stuck between two homes, neither fully Southern nor fully a New Yorker.

Woodson and her older siblings return to New York City in the fall. Their younger brother is still frail, but eventually recuperates and returns home. In school, Woodson must learn how to navigate her dyslexia, which makes her a different sort of student than her academically gifted older sister. She eventually learns to memorize entire stories, as a coping strategy. Woodson also makes a new school friend, a Spanish girl named Maria, who lives next door. Woodson and Maria consider one another family, in spite of their different cultures, and often exchange dinners that their mothers have made for them; Maria teaches Woodson Spanish phrases.

Uncle Robert is sent to prison: first to Riker’s Island and then to a prison upstate. Woodson and her siblings visit him there, and Woodson is shocked by how prison life has already changed him. Soon after visiting Robert, Woodson and her family travel to Greenville to visit Gunnar, who has grown increasingly frail. He dies while they are there with him, and Woodson and her family mourn and bury him. After her husband’s death, Woodson’s grandmother moves out of her South Carolina house and into a spare bedroom in the Woodson’s family apartment.

Upon Uncle Robert’s release from prison, Woodson learns that he has become an observant Muslim. Robert teaches Woodson about praying to Mecca, and also about the Black Panthers and Angela Davis; Woodson is inspired to write a poem about the Black revolution, and recites this poem out loud to her class. Her teacher tells her that she is a writer, and Woodson is hopeful and thrilled. In “each world,” she begins to perceive writing as a way of celebrating all of the different influences in her life, and at the same time finding the freedom to write her own story: “When there are many worlds / you can choose the one / you walk into each day.” 

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