Why do you think Jacqueline Woodson chose the title Brown Girl Dreaming? What does it tell the reader about the book?
No matter how many times you're told not to judge a book by its cover, the title and cover art of a book make a large impact on who will read it and what they predict it will be about. Each word of Woodson's memoir's title was chosen specifically to foreshadow the themes and tone of the memoir as well as welcome a particular readership. First, "brown." Throughout Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson uses the word brown to describe herself and others, rather than saying black or African American. This word encompasses more than a particular race or lived experience, meaning any person who identifies as brown could connect with the main character. Next, "girl." Again, a particular group of reader will feel invited to connect with the main character of the book. Furthermore, Woodson notes how impactful it was for her growing up to read a book with a character who looked like her. Since brown girls are particularly underrepresented in children and young adult literature, Woodson is doing her part to create a strong character for this intersectional audience to connect with. Finally, "dreaming." This word both foreshadows a main theme of the book, the pursuit of personal dreams and goals, and gives the title a hopeful and positive tone, much like the tone of the book itself.
Why do you think Jacqueline Woodson chose to write the book in verse? What effect does the form have on the story?
While a book in verse might seem intimidating to some young readers, Woodson's artistic choice allows her to communicate her memories in a precise and interesting manner. From the story, the reader learns that Woodson loved writing poetry from a young age. The fascination seems to have started in fourth grade; it is during this year that Jacqueline explores haiku poetry, learns to imitate great poets like Langston Hughes, and completes her first book: a collection of seven poems about butterflies. Jacqueline's love of poems could be because of their short and choppy form; she struggles to read and write traditional stories (due to what is probably undiagnosed dyslexia), but she doesn't seem to struggle with reading or writing poetry. This same short and choppy form makes it easy for the reader to empathize with Jacqueline's bursts of childhood emotions, ranging from curiosity to frustration to grief. The short poems, separated with page breaks and individual titles, allow for a compartmentalization and juxtaposition of memories, building one on top of another to create the story's narrative.
How is Jacqueline's experience as an African American different from the experiences of her parents and grandparents?
Woodson uses her family's story to demonstrate the changes to the rights and treatment of African Americans over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Because Woodson's mother and father came from different parts of the United States, her mother from the South and her father from the North, she also shows how the African American experience in those locations differed. On her mother's side, Jacqueline's great-great-grandparents were slaves in the South. While Jacqueline's maternal grandparents live freely and hold jobs requiring education, they grew up facing discrimination due to Jim Crow laws and general racism. While Jacqueline's mother seems to be well-educated and free-spirited, she also faced discrimination while growing up that put her in harm's way and caused her to have a fraught relationship with calling the South home. Jacqueline's father's ancestors were freed from slavery much earlier in history, and found success in the North. This caused Jacqueline's father to strongly reject the continued subjugation of African Americans in the South, driving a wedge between Jacqueline's parents. Jacqueline's experience as an African American is influenced by her grandparents', parents', and own experiences. Growing up during the Civil Rights movement and the rise of Black Power, Jacqueline feels more empowered than any of her ancestors to represent her identity. She uses this empowerment to share her story through writing and further empower others like her.
Examine the theme of home in Brown Girl Dreaming. Where does Jacqueline feel most at home?
The main conflict of Brown Girl Dreaming is Jacqueline's internal conflict over where to call home. Throughout the story, Woodson explores what makes a place a home. Jacqueline feels comfortable in South Carolina as a young child because of her connection to family, but being African American makes the South a dangerous and uncomfortable place at times. When Jacqueline moves to New York City, she believes that she will never call this new place home. However, after spending more time there, Jacqueline becomes more comfortable with the Northern way of life. She realizes that she can feel at home in New York City when she is around family, other people from the South, and even new friends who make her feel accepted. After a few years, Jacqueline has little connection to the South and a very strong connection to New York. At the climax of the memoir, Jacqueline comes to accept that she can have many parts of her identity, including many homes. She can feel at home in South Carolina, in New York, and even in Ohio. From this, the reader comes to understand that home is wherever a person can find family, friends, or a community that accepts them.
What effect does religion have on Jacqueline's life?
Religion, particularly not being able to choose her own religion and style of worship, influences Jacqueline's life greatly. While Jacqueline's mother says, "The children can choose their own faith/ when they're old enough" (112), Jacqueline's grandmother tells the children, "In my house...you will do as I do" (112). Jacqueline and her siblings are forced to become Jehovah's Witnesses, and this shapes their lives for many years. They cannot celebrate holidays, even classmates' birthdays, and they give up most afternoons and weekends to praying, studying, and spreading religious ideology. All the while, Jacqueline is doubting her faith and the practices of her church. She does not agree with the idea that non-believers like her grandfather can't go to Heaven, and she feels guilty after not giving a booklet to a woman who can't pay for it. Because Jacqueline's family members and members of her religious group do not help her address these doubts, Jacqueline seems to build a negative association with religion for much of her childhood. However, it is important that religion is still a part of the identity she comes to accept at the end of the story. Woodson writes, "I believe in God and evolution/ I believe in the Bible and the Qur'an/ I believe in Christmas and the New World" (317). This shows that religion can still be a positive part of Jacqueline's life as long as she can keep an open mind toward others.