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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Brown Girl Dreaming, and How I Discovered Poetry

In another interesting pair of subject-matter-coincidences, we have two works in verse from African American female writers this year that are memoirs of their childhood experiences which prepared them for their writing careers.  (These both follow closely on last year’s Words with Wings by Nikki Grimes, for a triple coincidence.)

Jacqueline Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING is far an away a popular favorite for Newbery, if you go by responses to this blog and on Goodreads, and is still hanging on the National Book Awards Shortlist announced yesterday.  Woodson’s free verse fixes her memories firmly in detailed moments that show her earliest recognition of herself as a sibling, as a daughter and grandaughter, as a friend, and as a storyteller.   Who knew that Woodson had such a hard time reading as a child, but that stories–whether heard or imagined–were always so firmly a part of her mental landscape?  She addresses this point of view in a straightforward and evocative way,  through what I might called “lineated prose pieces” rather than “poems,” as I don’t think they necessarily stand alone, or are meant to.  I found the beginning a little meandering, and a little hard to get a handle on the voice as much of it is clearly memory-by-proxy, or remembering stories she’s been told…but all of it was lovely, well-written, and necessary, and I think that readers will be intrigued enough to stay with it until Woodson’s voice solidifies, as her character does, as a slightly older girl in Brooklyn.   We get to know her family members so well, and the author’s note adds crucial information that readers will be hungering for about her biological father. Astute readers will also pick up on the subtext on p. 275 “….and only my mother says, / Just so long as you’re not writing about our family.“), connect this with the information in the family tree, the author’s note, and the dedication, and be grateful that Woodson chose to tell and share her story in such a personal way, in the right time.

In HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY, Nelson’s poems,  as opposed to Woodson’s, are true stand-alone poems that are linked with a narrative–though a looser one.   Each unrhymed sonnet allows the reader to dwell in that memory, unpack it slowly, move back and forth through the narrative to understand more each time.  It’s a reading that deepens with context understood outside of the book, but Nelson offers threads to the reader in her note to pursue that context on their own. This is such a unique reading experience to readers of this age, and done extraordinarily well.  It’s not a book for everyone, but that’s not a Newbery consideration.  It’s not easily accessible, but neither is that a consideration, as long as the style and approach are appropriate for the intended audience.  I need to get back to this book to give it a re-read, but it is so different and so excellent, I hope the committee is considering it.  They will need to make sure it is deemed eligible, as several of these poems were previously published; but my guess is that it will be, as those previous publications were for such a different audience (poetry journals for adults).

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Karyn Silverman says:

    Oh! I just was saying on the record that I should have reviewed these together but failed due to not having read Brown Girl as I was only hearing Newbery buzz, not Printz. I’m really curious about How I Discovered as a Newbery potential; I really thought it skewed up precisely because of the things not said, and would thus not be on target for a younger audience, but I also work in a high school and sometime underestimate younger readers because I see them infrequently.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Karyn, I definitely think HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY and BROWN GIRL DREAMING are middle schools books for a target audience of grades 6-8 with some 4th and 5th graders also reading it on the lower end and some 9th and 10th graders reading it on the upper end. The fact that the Printz has gravitated toward high school books is probably responsible for the lack of Printz buzz, but as we both know the committee doesn’t always listen to the buzz.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Karyn, I agree that the Nelson “skews up”, and more so than the Woodson, but I think it’s completely defensible within the Newbery range of up to and including 14, according to the interpretation on p.69 in the appendix of the manual:

      If a book is challenging, and suitable for 13-14-year-olds but not for younger readers, is it eligible? Yes;
      but it can be given an award only if it does what it sets out to do as well as or better than other, younger
      books that are also eligible. Questions for committees to consider include these:
      * Is there any 14-year-old for whom this book is suitable?
      * If so, is it distinguished enough to be considered?
      * If so, exactly what 14-year-olds would respond to it, and why?
      A book may be considered even though it appeals to a fairly small part of the age range if the committee
      feels that
      * it is so distinguished that everyone of that age should know the book;
      * it is so distinguished, in so many ways, that it deserves recognition for the excellence it provides to a
      small but unique readership;
      * it is exceptionally fine for the narrow part of the range to which it appeals, even though it may be
      eligible for other awards outside this range.

      For those who want to read all of these interpretations, you can find them here!

  2. While I truly enjoyed and respect BROWN GIRL DREAMING, I am not as in love as many people seem to be. Part of my struggle comes from attempting to think of this as a story that was going somewhere. In the last few poems/”lineated prose pieces”, Woodson seems to make a push for the whole book having been about her development as a writer. While I understand – and agree – that all parts of our lives add to us as authors, I just felt like she was giving us a picture of who she was and where she came from throughout and, near the end, decided she needed to package it a little more neatly. There’s nothing wrong with a coming-of-age story.

    There were clearly sections that focused on writing (“Composition Notebook” being an absolute standout for me), but after reading the final 20 pages, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being led to believe the book focused on something that I just didn’t feel it did clearly and consistently.

    I’m afraid this may come across as me disliking the book, which is not the case at all. I liked the book on the whole, and there were defiinte sections that I loved.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Jeff, I also thought the ending was off, and would have liked a better sense of closure (although I didn’t have any problem with the “meandering” beginning that Nina mentioned). I thought–as with most verse novels–that the parts that merely push the narrative forward weren’t nearly as distinguished as the others. Like you, I hope this doesn’t come across as me not liking the book because it’s still a top two book for me, and probably easier to build consensus around than my other pick, THE FAMILY ROMANOV.

  3. I haven’t read Nelson’s book, so maybe I would feel differently after seeing the contrast, but one thing I liked about Woodson’s was that I did see each poem as individually distinct. It’s not like you could take most of them out and say “read this poem” and have them make perfect sense, but that’s why it’s a novel, not a poetry collection. In fact, I did turn to the page about the family going to North Carolina on the bus and give it to someone to read, explaining that each page or two is its own poem–as opposed to the two novels in verse I’d read immediately before that, Caminar and Another Day as Emily. Each section explores a particular memory or theme, ruminating on it, completing it, before going on to the next. The poetry and structure are, for me, what really elevate this book above everything else I’ve read this year (whether straight prose or novel-in-verse).

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      I mostly agree with your take on this Wendy, especially as compared to CAMINAR (which I’ve still only read half of…I’ll get there). In this way, I think it resembles CROSSOVER. Each poem “works” as a moment…. but I do think each depends on others in the narrative pretty heavily, whereas Nelson’s really can be taken solo. One approach is not necessarily any better than the other, but I think it’s important to recognize in considering each.

  4. Eric Carpenter says:

    I really enjoyed BROWN GIRL DREAMING and have it in my top ten for sure (possibly top 5). That said I worry about the STEVIE section.
    The criteria states that:
    • “Original work” means that the text was created by this writer and no one else. It may include original retellings of traditional literature, provided the words are the author’s own.
    • Further, “original work” means that the text is presented here for the first time and has not been previously published elsewhere in this or any other form. Text reprinted or compiled from other sources are not eligible. Abridgements are not eligible.

    On pages 227-228 (of the ARC) Woodson quotes 48 words from Steptoe’s STEVIE [technique Woodson places this text in italics not within quotation marks].
    What does this mean in terms of eligibility. Can the committee treat this a they would a block quotation in an informational text? Have prior newbery committees awarded informational books with long sections of block quotations? This would be a concern with Family Romanov as well since Fleming often quotes directly and extensively from primary sources. These quotations do not hurt the book in any way, but I wonder how they may hinder newbery chances based on how the criteria may be read. These quotations are not “text created by this writer and no one else”.

    I found it interesting that the Sibert terms and criteria seem to account for this in some ways. Much of the wording above about “original work” is the same in the Sibert criteria but the following is also included:
    “Substantial contents compiled from other sources are not eligible.” The addition here of the word “Substantial” leads me to believe that some text from other sources (such as quotations from primary sources) is acceptable for the Sibert.
    Since the newbery criteria omits substantial can we assume ANY content compiled form other sources are not eligible?
    I am hoping I am merely reading the criteria incorrectly. Hope someone with experience around the real table can clarify this part of the criteria.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Eric, there is some clarification on this point in the back of the manual–

      “The intent is to insure that a book is a NEW creation, and not a re-creation from some other work. This does not mean that some minor portion of the work cannot have appeared elsewhere. It does mean, however, that no significant part of the book under consideration was originally part of another work.”

      “Not all cases are clear-cut, and each committee must make its own judgments about originality. Where consensus is not easily reached, the Chair should discuss the issue with the Priority Consultant, who may also consult the President, the Executive Director, the Board, or previous chairs.”

      For what it’s worth HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY also has some previously published poems, but I don’t think it’s enough to render the book ineligible, nor do I think BROWN GIRL DREAMING would be ruled likewise.

      I also don’t think nonfiction will have a problem with quoting sources because (a) it’s an expected convention of the genre and (b) there are numerous examples in the canon that have already been recognized.

  5. So many remarkable books this year. One thing that completely dazzles me in How I Discovered Poetry is Marilyn’s ability to get the distinct voice of the same character at different ages.

  6. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Helen, yes! We definitely have a sense of the character changing from poem to poem. I appreciated having those empty spaces in between. Plenty of room for the reader.

  7. Brown Girl Dreaming also integrates song lyrics in a way that I found very effective – works whether you recognize the songs or not. Just like with the Stevie poem, this is not previously published work by the author – Woodson. It is all very creative re-imaging for a meaning that is Woodson’s own. Agree that secondary characters are brought to life as well as the author.

  8. I think that Night gardener should be in top 5 it is a good book and is young enough for 8-14 and it also describes the characters really great.

  9. Brown Girl Dreaming is my top favorite book of 2014 because it is most distinguished in many ways from describing the characters to plot development and it is also a great book for 8-14. I think it should win the Newberry right Mr. Leopold.

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