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Brown Girl Dreaming

BROWN GIRL DREAMING has six starred reviews, presumably six best of the year lists (where are you Bulletin?), the National Book Award, and it’s placed the highest through our two rounds of unofficial nominations.  It’s a shoo-in for the Newbery Medal, right?  I’d like to think it has a very good chance.  Personally, I find THE FAMILY ROMANOV to be slightly more distinguished, but only by a hair and if BROWN GIRL DREAMING is easier to build consensus around (and that appears to be the case) then this is the other book that would make me extremely proud to recognize.

BROWN GIRL DREAMING is not a perfect book.  Some people find the beginning and/or the ending to be slightly off.  Me, I like the beginning just fine, but the ending seemed too abrupt and lacked sufficient closure.  The fact that she leans on the perspectives of relatives to flesh in her early years is not problematic for me in terms of voice.  Rather, I found that it hearkened back to another of her Newbery Honor boooks, SHOW WAY.  That one focused on the oral family history of her maternal line.  “The Woodsons of Ohio” provides a nice counterpoint, drawing on the oral family history from her father’s line.  I don’t know that I could bring this last point up at the table, but I almost feel like Woodson has come full circle here, and it’s only fitting that if she wins the Newbery Medal that it be for this particular book, not just arguably her best book, but one that is so personal and universal at the same time.

Another fault I will acknowledge: I don’t know that this one ever rises above the standard complaints of the verse novel, and indeed Nina sought to rebrand this as “lineated prose pieces” in order to distance this work from those.  This is not a comment to bring up around the table, but there are two verse novels in the cannon–OUT OF THE DUST and INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN–and I find this one to be every bit as good as those, if not better.  On the other hand, I’m not sure that the poetry here is as uniformly excellent as it is in HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY nor that the narrative as well constructed as THE CROSSOVER.  So, for me, BROWN GIRL DREAMING is clearly not a perfect book.

And yet I find it to easily be one of the most distinguished books of the year, and here’s why.  The highs of this book are so high that it mitigates and masks the weaknesses, so that the sum total still nudges ahead of 99.9% of the field.  Now I neglected to bring the book home over the holiday break so you will have to wait until I return to my office on Monday so cite specific examples from the text, but I would encourage you to do so below in the comments as well.  Which passages did you find the most moving?  The most beautifully written?

Many of us have our hearts pinned so firmly on this book that I fear it will be devastating should it fall to an Honor book or worse yet receive nothing at all (think: MR. TIGER GOES WILD), but perhaps we should explore that possibility, too.  The last time the same book won both the National Book Award and the Newbery Medal was in 1999 when HOLES accomplished the feat.  That’s fifteen years ago, so it doesn’t happen that often.  I was on two committees that were widely expected to rubber stamp the the National Book Awards:  The 2006 Newbery was supposed to recognize THE PENDERWICKS, you’ll remember, and the 2008 Printz was supposed to recognize THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN.  So I know that it’s not really that the committee doesn’t like being told what they should pick, but rather that we simply haven’t read as broadly and deeply as they have.  (For example, how many of us have read both BROWN GIRL DREAMING and HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY?  The two works are similar enough that they beg for comparison, and if you haven’t read both then who are you to say that the latter book is not, in fact, more distinguished?)  And I feel that way especially this year (that I haven’t read broadly and deeply enough this year), I keep saying that I only like two books, but I think that’s due to the fact that I’m focused on other things this year.

 

 

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Sam Bloom says:
  2. Julie Williams says:

    Interesting that you mentioned the comparison of Brown Girl Dreaming and How I Discovered Poetry. I read both at the same time. I had already heard a lot of buzz around Brown Girl Dreaming but I liked How I Discovered Poetry much better. Without going back and rereading them now I can’t pinpoint why. Curious.. is Brown Girl Dreaming gets a slight nudge because of who the author is compared to How I Discovered Poetry? Judge a book by its cover? Brown Girl Dreaming… ;0

  3. Leonard Kim says:

    Jonathan, I agree with two major points you make. 1) This book is going to stand or fall on how the reader balances its highs versus its flaws. 2) The more comparable books the reader reads, the less obvious a pick this becomes.

    1) Highs vs. lows. Yeah, some parts made me teary. I am a sucker for Road to Damascus stuff, especially where education is involved. I teared up during Rubin’s FREEDOM SUMMER when reading about the impact of the Freedom Schools too. But this feels like one of those personal biases we talk about overcoming.

    To me, reading BROWN GIRL DREAMING had a fair amount of waiting and wading through many pages to get to the highs. I really don’t think one can easily forgive the “standard complaints.” At 336 pages, BGD is considerably longer than THE CROSSOVER, HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY, and CAMINAR. It has more pages than non-verse memoirs like STORIES OF MY LIFE and EL DEAFO. So I don’t think we can forgive its “unevenness” on the basis of genre, because the point is that it is more uneven than other books in the same genre, which also have wonderful highs. I liked BGD, so don’t want to come across as unnecessarily harsh, but it really could have been 100 pages shorter.

    2) The most obvious comparison is HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY, which I feel is a much more disciplined work. Arguably, that same discipline could make HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY less accessible. I could see readers taking a shine to BROWN GIRL DREAMING because of some of its shaggy dog qualities. But that’s a tough argument to make to convince someone else.

    I also think THE RED PENCIL, in my top seven, is an important point of comparison. It almost combines the best of BGD and something like CAMINAR. The heroines are broadly comparable in their incipient creativity, family relationships, etc. But the trials faced and the setting are much more CAMINAR-like, which raises all of the stakes. I was shocked to learn THE RED PENCIL and BGD are the same length, but I think that’s a testament to THE RED PENCIL maintaining a more consistent high level.

    BROWN GIRL DREAMING doesn’t seem obviously the best memoir out there. Of those I’ve read, I personally think EL DEAFO is better and HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY and STORIES OF MY LIFE are as good. (Sorry, Eric, I’d rank THE DUMBEST IDEA EVER a little below them). And BGD doesn’t seem obviously better as poetry compared to HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY, CAMINAR, THE RED PENCIL, MISS EMILY, or THE CROSSOVER. Even Jonathan seems to admit this. So the argument has to be that combining the two makes something better. I think this argument could be made for EL DEAFO – being a graphic novel allows Cece Bell’s text to focus on playing to its strengths. On the other hand, I think BGD being a memoir actually lead to less selectivity where more was called for (because of being in verse.) STORIES OF MY LIFE is notable in contrast in that Paterson seems intent on telling only her best stories, even if it means “skipping” parts of her life. But I think Woodson’s more inclusive approach to memoir-writing makes being in verse more problematic because of the amount of “filler.”

    I think REVOLUTION, just in Sunny, already has an argument for being the best novel out there. All of the other non-novel things it does: building the trilogy, the artistic incorporation of images and quotations, the biographies, the little chapters from other characters’ POVs, are not required to make it “distinguished.” They make it more so. I think this is different from BGD where I felt the basic core elements themselves (the poetry, the memoir) are not clearly the peak instances out there, and it’s arguable whether the combination of elements serves to advance it over the “most distinguished” line.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Leonard, most of your comparisons are apt, and your questioning valid….I agree with most of it. However, I think that BGD is unique, and achieves its distinguished qualities in its uniqueness. Is it the most adept verse novel? No, but that was certainly not the point. The most coherent memoir? No, but it’s not easily pigeonholed there either.

      I find Woodson’s voice here unique, in the way it brings the reader into the moment, and thus delivers an emotional memoir. Though mostly chronological, the book doesn’t *feel* chronological to me, it feels like a memory-of-the-self that jumps from significant moments, to reflections, to future moments….exactly how we think about ourselves. How rare, to have such an intimate perspective with so much for readers to latch on to. I find it surpasses Sunny’s perspective in REVOLUTION in this regard, and it what makes it stand out overall.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Nina, I guess I would have fewer reservations if Woodson were able to convey to me the sensation of memory-of-self, which I admit may be well-served by feeling diffuse, jumpy, reflective, etc. without the text actually being so diffuse etc. It’s like how the effect of stream-of-consciousness can be powerful, but an actual stream-of-consciousness would be boring.

        I have to say I’m finding this a much harder re-read than my first. Often a re-read allows appreciation of details and craftsmanship — the thought behind each word and sentence. This works well for WEST OF THE MOON (and REVOLUTION) but maybe these aren’t the particular strengths of BGD?

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Leonard, I, too, think that you have some good points, points that they real committee will almost surely examine in greater depth than we do here. Finding the most distinguished book is merely one half of the task, the other half is agreeing on it, and if our Top Seven post is any indication, most of us acknowledge this as one of the seven best books of the year, and while it’s true that we may get differing mileage out of it, it’s no less true that it also makes it easier to build consensus around a title, that is, the greatest good for the greatest number.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Jonathan,

      I have noticed in our nominations that people seem to rank REVOLUTION very high or not at all. In fact, I believe the average ranking of REVOLUTION is higher among those who voted for it than BGD is among its voters (though obviously many more people ranked BGD.) Despite my advocacy, I am prepared for any outcome.

      Speaking of consensus, I am happy to see EL DEAFO get a respectable number of nominations, even if it’s everybody’s 6th pick.

  5. While I enjoyed BROWN GIRL DREAMING for me it doesn’t make it past a Newbery Honor because the ending was flat. during the last 10 pages I asked myself, “Wait…is that it? It just ends here?” I’m fine with a lack of clear resolution, but it was as if the author had stopped telling the story and was just saying how she was a writer.

  6. Safranit Molly says:

    Dear Friends at Heavy Medal,
    I have been reading the discussions this year with interest and a great deal of respect for all of you. I have been feeling remiss in not speaking up for BGD sooner. So I will take the time to do it now, though my thoughts on the book are still not completely developed. (I have ever increasing respect for the real committee who has to have all of their ducks in a row on every book discussed!)
    As a quick aside, I did read How I Discovered Poetry about the same time (early summer) as I read BGD and I found no comparison. I recall feeling that How I Discovered Poetry was underdeveloped and too brief to tell the story it intended to tell. However, I respect all of you who have found it worthy and perhaps more distinguished than BGD, so I am willing to give it another read with an open mind.
    On to my choice for the Newbery Medal this year: Brown Girl Dreaming
    I begin with a broad view of the definition of the Newbery. The ALA defines “Distinguished” as marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement. Brown Girl Dreaming is a significant achievement because it tells a vital and important American story. Perhaps this statement would be thrown out by the real committee. As Nina discusses in her post about the committee’s process, what the book says, the message, can’t count. I’m sure that’s true, I just feel it is unfortunate in this case because I believe BGD adds so much to the canon of American Literature for children. It makes a distinguished contribution.
    Here are my notes on where I feel BGD distinguishes itself in two of the relevant criteria: Interpretation of Theme or Concept and Plot. I will work to find passages that denote excellence in character, setting and style later (unless you all tell me to pipe down).
    Interpretation of Theme or Concept:
    One theme of this book is the civil rights movement and how people insisted on dignity and respect in a country that promised that much to all of its children. Here’s a passage from the book that develops that theme:
    “Everything happens for a reason, my mother
    says. Then tells me how Kay believed
    in fate and destiny—everything
    that ever happened or was going to happen
    couldn’t ever be avoided. The marchers
    down south didn’t just up and start
    their marching—it was part of a longer, bigger
    plan, that maybe belonged to God.

    My mother tells me this as we fold laundry, white towels
    Separated from the colored ones. Each
    A threat to the other, and I remember the time
    I spilled bleach on a blue towel, dotting it forever.
    The pale pink towel, a memory
    of when it was washed with a red one. Maybe
    there is something, after all, to the way some want to remain—each to its own kind.
    But in time
    maybe
    everything will fade to gray.
    p.293
    This is an example of distinguished development of theme because Woodson shows us what the changing world looked like through her eyes. We see her standing there folding towels with her mom talking about the way marchers and regular people were changing the way the world was for people of color. She uses the image of the colored towels to show the way people thought about skin color and racial differences. She doesn’t give us declarative sentences that tell us what should be, she simply describes the world she was seeing and lets the “should be’s” develop in our minds like images on Polaroid film. This places faith in the reader; she trusts that we will be able to understand her message. Her distinguished interpretation of theme or concept is subtly and artfully accomplished.

    Development of Plot
    This book is a memoir so it naturally follows the arc of Woodson’s life. Sometimes memoirs lack a real plot structure because they tend to be episodic and scattered, the way memories are. However, Brown Girl Dreaming does have an arc. It begins with her earliest memories of childhood (*I know a flaw many point to is that they aren’t actually memories because she writes about things she cannot remember—I will try to comment on that after the passages I cite) and builds toward her finding her purpose: her decision to become a writer. I think this arc is path all young people follow—not that they all become writers, but that they have to stumble along until their purpose develops. All adults were once young children, unsure of their place in the world or the direction they should go. Not many books document that uncertainty. I am grateful that Woodson has written this book that shows us how she began to find her path. Here are some passages that show this progression.

    When Woodson was a newborn:
    “In Montgomery, only seven years have passed since Rosa Parks refused
    to give up
    her seat on a city bus.

    I am born brown-skinned, black-haired and wide eyed.
    I am born Negro here and Colored there.
    and somewhere else,
    the Freedom Singers have linked arms,
    their protests rising into song:
    Deep in my heart, I do believe
    that we shall overcome someday.

    and somewhere else James Baldwin
    is writing about injustice, each novel,
    each essay, changing the world.

    I do not yet know who I’ll be
    What I’ll say
    how I’ll say it. . .

    Not even three years have passed since a brown girl
    named Ruby Bridges
    walked into an all-white school.
    Armed gaurds surrounded her while hundreds
    of white people spat and called her names.

    She was six years old.
    I do not know if I’ll be strong like Ruby.
    I do not know what the world will look like
    when I am finally able to walk and speak and write. . . ”
    p. 3-4

    To the people who argue that this isn’t memoir because she can’t remember her infancy, I reply that this is context. She is placing herself in the time period and her placement in the time gives her legitimacy to comment on the wider experience of African Americans during the civil rights movement. No, it isn’t memoir—perhaps this books transcends the genre?
    Then there is the passage following where she writes about how her father wanted to name her Jack. Names are such important parts of identity. At the beginning she didn’t even have that much. Her parents gave her Jacqueline. She could be Jackie. Or Jack. Or,
    “Jacqueline, just in case
    I grew up and wanted something a little bit longer
    and further away from
    jack.”
    My argument is that the plot arc of the book is her development a person so I think this is a relevant passage showing her identity, even though, once again, it isn’t strictly memoir.
    Identity isn’t just created by the giving of a name. Her identity emerged in the context of her family. Much of the story is about listening to and learning from elders. Woodson formed her character around stories and family lore. Here is a passage where she shows that happening:
    “That’s when we listen
    to the grown folks talking.
    Hope, Dell and me sitting quiet on the stairs.
    We know one word from us will bring a hush
    upon the women, my grandmother’s finger suddenly pointing toward the house, her soft spoken
    I think it’s time for you kids to go to bed now ushering
    us into our room. So we are silent, our backs against
    posts and the back of the stairs, Hope’s elbows
    on his knees, head down. Now is when we learn
    everything
    there is to know
    about the people down the road and
    in the daywork houses,
    about the Sisters at the Kingdom Hall
    and the faraway relatives we rarely see.

    Long after the stories are told, I remember them,
    whisper them back to Hope
    and Dell late into the night:
    She’s the one who left Nicholtown in the daytime
    the one Grandmama says wasn’t afraid
    of anything. Retelling each story.
    Making up what I didn’t understand
    or missed when voices dropped too low, I talk
    until my sister and brother’s soft breaths tell me
    they’ve fallen
    asleep.

    Then I let the stories live
    inside my head, again and again
    until the real world fades back
    into cricket lullabies
    and my own dreams.”
    p.98-99

    In these passages I hear the developing writer. She’s creating story—her story. She’s immersing herself in family and community lore that will one day become the content of her stories. I know that the fictionalization of the memoir is troubling for some readers because she writes about what she cannot know, but I would argue that she is giving the book a plot arc. We follow this brown girl as her dream develops, so it is satisfying when it reaches the conclusion: her dream is to be a writer.
    “I want to write this down, that the revolution is like
    a merry-go-round, history always being made
    somewhere. And maybe for a short time,
    we’re a part of history. And then the ride stops
    and our turn is over.

    We walk slow toward the park where I can already see
    the big swings, empty and waiting for me.

    And after I write this down, maybe I’ll end it this way:

    My name is Jacqueline Woodson
    and I am ready for the ride.”
    p. 309
    These passages are the places I feel this book distinguishes itself in the areas of development of theme and in plot. I appreciate the comments from former committee members Steven and Sam who emphasized that it is important to truly see and acknowledge the flaws in our favorite books as well as their virtues. So I will read your further comments on this book with thoughtful reflection.
    I apologize for the length of this post. I will close for now. I will delve further into the text to find other passages that demonstrate excellence in the other criteria areas.
    Thank you to Nina and Jonathan for moderating this always excellent discussion forum!

    • Nina Lindsay says:

      Thank you for such thoughtful comments, and the example of how the committee pulls examples of evidence from the text to support their arguments. I agree with you that “the plot arc of the book is her development a person”… and to follow up on Anon’s comment above, I actually appreciate how the story just drops off. It gets us where we need to get to. The self-reflective voice, and our knowledge of this as Woodson’s personal story and her success as a writer tell us the ending. The gap in between allows room for the reader’s imagination, and room for their own personal connections. To me this delivers *more* than if Woodson had filled in all the blanks for us.

      I also want to address this idea, that BGD “is a significant achievement because it tells a vital and important American story. Perhaps this statement would be thrown out by the real committee. As Nina discusses in her post about the committee’s process, what the book says, the message, can’t count. I’m sure that’s true, I just feel it is unfortunate in this case because I believe BGD adds so much to the canon of American Literature for children. It makes a distinguished contribution.”

      … I may overstate this point to drive it home, and there are shades of interpretation for this. I do believe that the “significance” of the message in itself is not intended to be a part of the consideration. That is, if a book tells something “important” or “new” but does not do it in a fully distinguished way, that importance of message is not enough to raise it in estimation. However, there is absolutely no denying that among the most distinguished books of the year, some people feel that the significance of the message is part of measuring that “contribution.” It’s what makes it so hard for funny books, or short books, to be awarded. Is a distinguished book that does “more” necessarily more distinguished that an otherwise equally distinguished book that does “less”? It’s ultimately a part of the committee discussion, and then each individual member’s personal reckoning. I believe, for instance, many people are considering this re REVOLUTION.

      In the case of BGD, I do think the uniqueness of the message and voice together are what we are finding distinguished, and I find it hard to separate the two in this particular case. I think that is partially because this is a genre-breaking book. It’s easier for me to separate the technique from the msg in REVOLUTION b/c it is, more or less, a traditional novel. Not sure where I’m going with this yet…..

  7. To me it is the integrity of that voice, so steady, so lyrical, and so real. Readers feel in the hands of a master storyteller, a sort of bard, who is telling her story — her truth which connects us readers to the larger collective truth of the past. Woodson is remarkable at putting the reader in this place I think. (Not that the real committee can mention earlier works, but I think it is also what makes Each Kindness so powerful.)

  8. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:
  9. Two distinguished books, but only one has a claim to being called genre-breaking.

    The self (and personal experience) is perhaps the most important subject in modern poetry, and memoir-in-verse is an American tradition that goes all the way back to Walt Whitman. There are many recent practitioners, including Mary Karr, Maxine Hong Kingston, Michael Ondaatje, and Jill Bialosky. In the children’s book area, we more often find it in picture books — I’m thinking in particular of Allen Say’s prose poem memoir GRANDFATHER’S JOURNEY. Memoir and poetry are a perfect and frequent pairing. In short, I don’t think BROWN GIRL DREAMING is genre-breaking, not do I believe it needs to be to be distinguished. Why try to make that particular argument?

    On the other hand, REVOLUTION is not only a traditional novel, but at the same time is nonfiction, historical primary source text, and illustrated novel. The seamlessness with which the novel is set into its times and the choice and placement and reproduction of its supporting primary sources — right there in the text, to be read alongside the story or afterward — is highly unusual and involves high craft of the mind — the logic of building an “argument” — as well as the craft of the pen and the voice. This book has a far stronger claim to genre-breaking. At the same time REVOLUTION, too, has American literary provenance, fitting in the (short) tradition of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy. There are so few books like this, however, that a name for this “genre” had to be invented by Scholastic (“documentary novel”).

    It’s worth noting that Avi used the term “documentary novel” for NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH, but the documents in that novel were all fiction. The invented history is popular in fiction (over in YA, have you read THE UNFINISHED LIFE OF ADDISON STONE?) but rarely does an author of historical fiction dare to interleave her fictions with primary historical sources in the text, let alone stop the narrative entirely to dwell on a historical figure biographically. Speaking as a writer rather than as a critic: The risk is too high and the work too delicate — the interweaving must be near perfect, or one or another element will overwhelm or overbalance the others. The writer’s sensibility must be tremendously acute to pull it off, the keep readers focused and engaged in the overarching story; to follow the writer into the understanding that this is one girl’s story, and also the story of many, many others. That it is fiction and it is real.

    Tricky, tricky, tricky. High craft, in short, and very little mapping laid out by previous writers to follow.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Nancy, I was waiting for someone to take me on on this.

      I hadn’t thought beyond the children’s literature world in naming BGD as genre-breaking, where it does still stand out to me. Your points setting it in a broader context are appreciated. I think it still brings something unique to children’s literature in its form, even if Woodson was modeling what others have previously done.

      As does, truly, REVOLUTION, for the reasons you’ve laid out. I appreciate hearing from you how risky it is for an author to do this, as I don’t think I saw or appreciated the risk, and I didn’t mean to imply (but realize I did) that Wiles’ didn’t dare to do something fully new. I do think the “documentary novel” aspect of this book distinguishes it, and I think that it’s effective. But it fades into the background for me, and that may be me at fault forgetting I’m an adult reader, but I don’t see the nonfiction sections advancing the guts of the story. They provide needed context. What makes REVOLUTION stand out above other books for me is Sunny’s particular story and development, and when I think of that within her prose sections, they are traditionally formed. Stunning, but traditional, and nothing wrong with that.

  10. Leonard Kim says:

    Things a bit slow at work, so I was perusing the Heavy Medal archives. Looking at 2012-13 (and thinking about uniqueness), I wonder if you Cuisinart-ed then reconstituted SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS (which Jonathan also found objectively well-written but boring) with NO CRYSTAL STAIR could you get something like REVOLUTION and BGD?

    And having taken the writing out of S&G and giving it to REVOLUTION, are you left with THE NIGHT GARDENER? No Frankenstein experiments needed for Sheinkin and Turnage (though maybe BOMB = ROMANOV instead?) Stretching a bit, I see WEST OF THE MOON as the LIAR AND SPY book here. So who is IVAN?

    EL DEAFO!

  11. Leonard Kim says:

    Apologies for what will be a long post, but now I have the book with me… So, reading BGD. Starting from the top: epigraph from Langston Hughes (the relevance of which, especially on re-read, I don’t especially get, particularly in comparison to the Langston Hughes epigraph that opens REVOLUTION.) Part I: i am born, page 1 february 12, 1963. Why are all the poem titles in lower case? This is just a peccadillo, but I would prefer sensing there is a compelling reason for the author’s stylistic choices. “I am born…” Why the present tense? Again, peccadillo, but what’s wrong with, “I was born”? “Present tense calls attention to itself,” a wise man once wrote. The third poem, 5 pages later, switches to past tense. Flipping through the next several poems, lots of changes in tense, which I’m not feeling the point of. Back to the first poem, definite suggestion of racial themes. This is strongly magnified in poem 2, “second daughter’s second day on earth” with its triple “Negro” in the first three lines followed by a historical context info dump. “In Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr./is planning a march on Washington, where/John F. Kennedy is president.” This is poetry? (c.f., “Here’s one way to look at it. In 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa sat down and Martin stood up. But that’s not all.”) OK, it’s “lineated prose” but why break lines in this seemingly arbitrary way? This poem features alternation of famous people context with something more personal in italics. The italicized stuff is highly variable: omniscient nature writing “snow is slowly falling. So much already/covers this vast Ohio ground”, first person baby (in present tense) “I do not yet know who I’ll be/what I’ll say/how I’ll say it. . .” I get the general intent and structure, but the execution? This poem ramps up the suggestion that this book will be about race and Civil Rights, even daring to suggest the author could find a place among the invoked pantheon members. But then why do these themes then largely disappear for 20 pages and 12 poems of family history and anecdotes? (There is awareness and undercurrents of race in this section, but the expectations set by the first two poems are not followed through on again until page 30 with “greenville, south Carolina, 1963.”) Descent from Jefferson, family home and pictures, great-great grandfather, dad’s football dreams. . . I sort of feel like there’s an assumption that one’s own family history is inherently interesting to others. Is that really the case? If not, is this executed well-enough to compel interest? Thinking back to Paterson really trying to choose only the best family stories for her memoir. Also reminded of Mr. H’s question, “Is this “distinguished” because it’s written by Woodson?” Finally we’re back to the author and family members disagreeing about what time of day she was born. I feel the end tries to make this more profound than it is. With the next poem, we’ve inched forward chronologically for the first time in 13 pages. I feel like this book has tried to begin over and over again. The baby comes home from the hospital and there’s a purely family anti-meet-cute with the brother. Nice, but more patchwork. Then, there is haiku/We have an actual haiku/Is it a good one?
    20 pages. I’ll stop writing. I’ve tried to convey my struggles reading this book, especially on re-read. I’m not reading like this on purpose to be perverse. This really is something like what’s running through my mind as I read. My general observation is that the distracting authorial presence is preventing me from just giving in and sinking in as I would like. I find myself constantly questioning, rather than admiring, details and small choices. Many of the author’s large choices and gestures are understandable and admirable, and I agree that’s where you look for distinction. The small stuff, to me, doesn’t seem to hold up well to scrutiny, at least to my way of reading closely. I don’t want to come across as some kind of nitpicky, anal reader, and this is almost the complete opposite of how I found myself re-reading WEST OF THE MOON or REVOLUTION or EL DEAFO or. . . (I admit I thought the book got better as it goes on.)

  12. Leonard Kim says:

    I’ve noticed many of the individual poems in BGD violate the for-good-reason dictum, “show, don’t tell.” Once the book starts to hit its stride around part 2, there is greater consistency of voice and structure, which I think is a good thing. On the other hand, the structure (and sub-structures, in longer poems) often seems to be “show, then tell.” The ends of many poems serve to summarize, or explicate a theme or teachable moment, or “go deep” or tie everything back to the author. There is an argument for and against this — “for” in that it might help the child audience understand the point or theme of each poem, “against” in that this perhaps does not give readers enough credit. What’s more, technically, a definitive end to so many individual poems can impede the flow from one poem to the next. Not to mention that “less is more” often makes a better poem. I often found myself playing Monday Morning Author and thinking, if only she had taken out that last envoi (as it were), this would be better.

    Examples from part II:
    our names (p.45)
    but my grandfather / takes his sweet time, saying each / as if he has all day long // or a whole lifetime
    (I would argue that “going deep” in the last one-line stanza is unnecessary and that the poem is arguably stronger ending on “all day long.” Also, earlier in this poem I don’t like the straight list, “The Grandchildren / Gunnar’s Three Little Ones / Sister Irby’s Grands / MaryAnn’s Babies” — I believe it stops the poem and would have preferred selecting just one, or perhaps crafting, through punctuation or conjunctions, an aural flow across the list.)

    ohio behind us (p.46-47)
    Everyone else, she says, / has a new place to be now. // Everyone else / has gone away. / And now coming back home / isn’t really coming back home / at all.
    (Exactly what I’m talking about Woodson’s penchant for show then tell. The last “show”, the mother saying everyone else has a new place to be now, is itself a powerful end and the point is plenty clear. Is that last stanza really necessary? Do we really need to be “told” coming back home isn’t really coming back home?)

    the garden (p.48-49)
    Hmph, my grandfather says. And goes back / to working the land, pulling from it all we need // and more than that.
    (The Monday Morning Author in me thinks ending with, “Hmph, my grandfather says,” would have been an awesome ending. Instead we go back to the superficially deep and cliched notion of “working the land” and are “told” this gets you all you need. Even ending there would be arguably preferable, though, to throwing in that last one-line stanza, “and more than that.”)

    gunnar’s children (p50-52)
    Y’all are Gunnar’s children. / just keep remembering that. // Just keep remembering . . . //
    The repetition, in its own one-line stanza, “Just keep remembering . . .”, with ellipsis. I think I understand the effect intended, but even had it been pulled off, it’s kind of a cheap trick. The following lines, particularly ending with three parallel lines of grinning, talking, and loving, seem like common sentimentality (particularly ending with love.) Ending with the first “just keep remembering that” is all you need.

    at the end of the day (p.53-54)
    Back to explicit racial themes — the first stanza is a bit heavy-handed. After a fine thematic expression, “sees the way so many of them can’t understand / a colored man / telling them what they need to do” we are given 3 are-you-sure-you-got-it? statements “This is new. Too fast for them. / The South is changing.” Show then tell. And I think the point is made by the end of p.53 and would argue all of p.54 is redundant and the last stanza, bringing the authorial “I” back, particularly unnecessary.

    Only after five consecutive poems, do we finally get to one that I feel is unimpeachable, “daywork”, which is all “show” no “tell,” strongly thematic, vividly descriptive, nothing redundant getting in the way of simple expressiveness, no full-stop ending impeding the page turn. But that’s the “unevenness” problem of BGD, which the more I think about it, approaches “fatal flaw” levels for me. When perusing the Heavy Medal archives, I came across a great quote by Nina from November 23, 2012, “If I can see the author’s struggle in a work, then it’s probably not distinguished. If I can see that the author didn’t struggle: it’s certainly not.” I can’t seem to read BGD without wishing I felt the author struggled more to make things as good as they could be. Referring back to Nancy’s great comment, REVOLUTION was clearly a struggle to write, and part of its achievement is that you don’t see the struggle in the work itself, because of Wiles’ “high craft.”

  13. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Leonard, long posts forgiven. It’s interesting, I think you are experiencing BGD the way I experience REVOLUTION…the things that bug me continually stand in the way of seeing the book’s excellence for what it is. It’s hard!

    Early, I put aside the idea that the verse in BGD needed to be read wholly as poetry. As poetry, it’s not the best. But I don’t think that matters here…it doesn’t stand out for being a work of poetry, but rather memoir. What you see as an intrusive authorial presence, and an unnecessary “drive it home / show then tell” style I read as Woodson’s reflective and analytical voice. I think it’s consistent, deliberate, and wonderful.

    Thanks for reminding me, just above, about that comment about “struggle.” REVOLUTION is indeed a great example of seamless “high craft” (though i’ll still take exception with the Raymond sections on that point…still, Sunny’s voice, and the overall construction, knockout). Woodson’s rambling, then finessing, then rambling again I think *shows* struggle *exactly* where she intends. She is telling the story of her internal struggles, and you see it where she’s crafted you to see it. I do think we could document more elaborate craft in other books on our list including REVOLUTION, WEST OF THE MOON, ROMANOVS, MADMAN etc., but i don’t think we can call Woodson sloppy.

    Finally, you wondered in one of your comments above if people are finding this distinguished “because” it’s written by Woodson. I think that the early buzz about this book does it a disservice by suggesting this. Woodson’s certainly got a fan club, and so we have to consider that and examine the work with that in mind. But I think we have to do the same with many of the titles on our list, including REVOLUTION and ROMANOVS, and none of it means that the books are not inherently distinguished. We do have to put aside how much we’ve appreciated the author’s previous work, or how close to the subject matter we feel. I think the former is what’s going on with BGD (and by design, as the book is ABOUT the author), and the latter with REVOLUTION, where I think many adults feel a resonance with material that they experienced themselves. Again: none of these feelings discount the quality of either of these books. But we have to make sure we’re not using those feelings in our justifications.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Nina, I think by quoting Mr. H, I was trying to convey something different from what he and you may be suggesting. I was not really thinking specifically of Woodson at all. There is a balancing act in the memoir genre. Some people (the “fan club”) read memoirs because they are interested in that person. To such a reader, everything is interesting, the celebrity’s favorite color, TV show, brand of toothpaste, whatever. Other people read memoirs for other reasons, literary reasons, with little regard or interest for the specific person. I think that any memoir with Newbery pretensions must be written with the second reader in mind. I had previously praised Katherine Paterson for choosing to set down only the parts of her life that were actually “good stories” even if that meant passing over other parts of her life in silence. That said, there is still some element of “writing to the fan” in STORIES OF MY LIFE — I get the feeling Paterson assumes you’ve read her books (not just the famous ones) and care about the awards she’s gotten etc. With BROWN GIRL DREAMING the tension is slightly different. Woodson’s intense involvement with her own history means that everything about her past is meaningful and important to her… but that doesn’t really mean it belongs in a memoir that’s going to be more than a vanity project. I personally don’t think the fact that her father had a football scholarship is important to many people outside Woodson’s family and fans. I don’t think it justifies a 27-line poem. I think that’s superfluous in a work of literature. (And yes, I recognize that such a poem could potentially serve to make a larger thematic point around her dad and football, but it doesn’t really do that either.) But it may not be superfluous if you care that it’s “Jacqueline Woodson’s” dad. So… that’s sort of where my brain was when I thought to quote Mr. H.

  14. Nina, I’m going to respond to your uncertainty about how the primary sources in REVOLUTION enhance the guts of the main story over in the REVOLUTION thread.

    Meanwhile, though, one last thought about memoir and poetry in American letters that I can’t resist — basically, that a case can be made that the self is *the* important topic in the history of American poetry. And that lets me refer all of you to the best example of all: Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”. Let’s look at its devastating ending:

    There’s a stake in your fat black heart
    And the villagers never liked you.
    They are dancing and stamping on you.
    They always knew it was you.
    Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178960

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