brown girl dreaming Jacqueline Woodson, Puffin Books, 2016 
‘If someone had taken
that book out of my hand
said, You’re too old for this
I’d never have believed
that someone who looked like me
could be in the pages of the book
that someone who looked like me
had a story.
from ‘stevie and me’
When I was doing my Italian Doctorate, I felt compelled to read books that fed into my research – anything else was a guilty pleasure I could not settle upon. So for years I lived off a diet of Italian narrative and nonfiction with a smattering of poetry.
Now I am writing a big book on New Zealand women’s poetry, I am also time-poor for anything outside my research reading. I have a huge stack of New Zealand poetry books I want to read and share on my blog and it is slightly overwhelming that I can’t work through them at my usual pace.
When I hand in my manuscript to Otago University Press in March, I plan on spending a month reading fiction, especially New Zealand fiction, because that tower of next-to-reads is wobbling to billy-oh.
But this weekend I felt that in order to recharge my writing batteries, I needed to read something that required nothing more than that glorious abandonment within the world of a book.
Something that would require nothing but daydreaming on my part.
I picked brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, USA’s current Young People’s Poet Laureate. Jacqueline has written numerous award-winning books for readers of all ages. This book, a memoir in free verse for young readers (and everyone else!), was a 2014 National Book Award winner and a New York Times bestseller, along with other honours. She was the 2013 United States nominee for the Hans Christian Anderson medal.
And now – I loved it so much I want to share it, just in case it will find new readers in Aotearoa.
The memoir tracks the life of a young, African-American girl growing up in the 1960s and 1970s (Jacqueline). The book-length sequence of poems brings family in close, makes place reverberate with exquisite detail and recognises the way young readers can navigate significant issues. This book is grounded in what it means to grow up face to face with a societal intolerance of difference; a grandfather who is open to human connections and goodness within all, a grandmother who raises her grandchildren Seven Day Adventist, a mother who takes them from Ohio to South Carolina to Brooklyn, a father who disappears.
How does a young girl cope with a fire in belly that is fuelled by words, the magic of words, the power of story to imagine and liberate and soar when she has such trouble reading, unlike her brilliant quicksilver book-hungry sister?
How does she cope when her grandmother sill insists on sitting at the back of the bus and bypassing Woolworths becuase she does not want to stand out and be stared at?
How does she cope when she is not quite sure what to make of a God irritated by the other Gods? Or what it all means? God and religious edicts.
How does she cope when her mother leaves them behind for awhile she moves to New York? Before they get to move there too.
How does she cope when everyone thinks her stories are lies and lies just lead to thieving?
Reading this book is an absolute joy because it reminds you of exactly what matters in this grumpy old world.
The lines are quicksilver and luminous.
You are carried into heart.
You are carried into voice; vulnerable and strong.
The book is a tonic, a perspective reminder, a world-widener and I couldn’t stop reading until the last page.
‘But I just shrug, not knowing what to say.
How can I explain to anyone that stories
are like air to me,
I breathe them in and let them out
over and over again.’
from ‘the selfish giant’
Penguin Random House author page
Jacqueline Woodson website