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Last class, works in verse | Class #6, 2018

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Adolescent novels in verse have steadily increased in popularity since Virginia Euwer Wolff’s groundbreaking Make Lemonade was published in 1993. The best of these marry form and subject in a way that enriches both. Jacqueline Woodson’s eloquent free-verse memoir traces her family history and the earliest development of a writer. Consider how structure and voice reflect the young girl’s discovery of self and the world around her.

Lauren Adams About Lauren Adams

Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.



  1. Catherine K says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed Jacqueline Woodson’s portrayal of her own development as a writer and couldn’t help but think back to our class visit from Rachel Vail.

    What could be particularly engaging for teen readers are the dynamics between Jacqueline and her older sister, Odella. Many younger siblings spend their childhoods and even beyond dealing with being in their older siblings’ shadows and Woodson does a careful job of unveiling this delicate dance. We saw what is a familiar scenario–the older sibling moves on to the next grade and the same teacher must grapple with a student that physically looks the same but is drastically different on many accounts.

    We saw Woodson begin to swim in her own skin as she finds the art of writing and poetry, something her sister helps steer her towards but she eventually takes up as fully her own. Similar to Woodson, I can relate to the importance of a singular, influential teacher that can make all the difference in a student’s self-esteem, confidence, and willingness to learn and engage.

    Rachel Vail took us on her journey from her early inklings of being a spy in the CIA to her realization that theater and acting allowed her to do what she loved best–put herself into someone else’s shoes, thoughts, and mind. I see a parallel between Vail and Woodson in that they both appeared to arrive at writing in what could be considered a non-linear path–one sprinkled with twists and turns.

    Finally, I was interested to see how several of the books this semester became entangled–Woodson’s book explicitly referenced California’s Black Panther Movement like in One Crazy Summer, where the theme of an absent parent and a grandparent’s helpful interventions prevailed. Even The Hate U Give dealt with similar themes of racism, friendship, and family.

  2. Nicholas Kelly says:

    In keeping with the title, Woodson’s use of free verse created a dreamlike quality and a sense of memory. I was following the story and the characters just like in prose, but the main feeling in my experience of reading it was feeling like the details were washing over me: sensory details; pop culture references, especially songs, which fit very well into the verse (I was not sure I could be moved by the song “Love Train” after all of the times it was used in beer commercials, but here we are); the words that people said; and the emotions of Jacqueline. Novels written in prose are works of personal expression, but I often find that quality is disguised inside plot and description. Woodson’s use of free verse created what felt like a direct line to her emotions and memories. In addition, for a story about a young person discovering her voice and her dream to become a writer, it is fitting that the writing of the novel should be so formally inventive.

    When I think about the experiences in this class that have resonated the most with me, I think about a few books in particular. I think about how easily I got swept up the middle school drama of Well That Was Awkward, I think about how upset I was at the slow, painful, technology-caused death of Violet in Feed, and I think about the awe and wonder I felt “reading” The Arrival. Thinking especially about The Arrival, going forward I am interested in exploring how images can be used in classrooms as teaching tools.

  3. Katie T says:

    I remember absolutely loving verse novels when I was in elementary school. I remember reading “Out of the Dust” and “Witness” by Karen Hesse and really enjoying that mode of storytelling. There are two things about verse novels that I think lend themselves really well to being taught in the classroom. First, since the chapters are shorter, they are more easily digestible which is really important for struggling readers. Even though there’s still a lot of content to work with, the fact that there’s less text physically on the page can make the experience of reading a verse novel a lot less intimidating for kids. Secondly, I love the assignment of having students model the text and do some autobiographical verse writing of their own. This is also a great way to generate understanding of poetic devices: having to make those decisions themselves, they understand the meaning behind an author’s artistic choices. After reading Brown Girl Dreaming, I think having them write some free verse about their own journeys as writers (like Catherine discussed in her post) would be especially appropriate.

    Over the course of this semester, what’s resonated most from this class was the books I’ve read. Even if I can’t envision myself teaching all of them, I think it’s so important, especially for English teachers, to know and understand the popular literary landscape and what your students are reading. Even if you don’t necessarily teach a book in class, if you know that it’s popular amongst your students it’s good to be able to reference it and help facilitate those text-to-text connections. My favorite books this semester were Feed, The Hate U Give, and March: Book Three (which I’m especially glad to have read the week that John Lewis was announced as Commencement Speaker!) Going forward, I think it would be interesting to discuss what appear to be rising trends in YA. What’s the next fad going to be? How can we adapt to the changing landscape within our classrooms?

  4. Lauren K says:

    I listened to Brown Girl Dreaming via audiobook, rather than read it in a paper text. I have done this with a number of books in this class, with mixed results. Feed was actively enhanced by the audio, as the “feed” played jingles complete with music and sound effects. A book I read for my bibliography was hindered by my audio-only experience, as I found out later it had illustrations that would have greatly enhanced my reading!

    Brown Girl Dreaming fell somewhere in between, and I think this is due to its free verse structure. Hearing the author read their own book is always a lovey experience. This was definitely true for Brown Girl Dreaming, where Woodson’s lyrical verse was brought to life through her voice. I was also amazed by how un-verse-like the poetry sounded when read out loud. I think that you could give the audio to someone who was unfamiliar with the book’s form, and they may be hard pressed to identify it as poetry. However, because I was unable to see the break of lines on the page, I did struggle sometimes with identifying deeper meaning, word play, or figurative language in the poems, rather than simply following the plot. Woodson’s verse came to life through her reading, though, if I were to read it over again, I would like to follow along with the book while listening to the audio in order to fully immerse myself in this unique structure.

  5. Sedef Seker says:

    I don’t remember reading a lot of poetry as an adolescent. When we did read poetry in class, it was often done as a separate unit, and the incorporation of poetry in the curriculum felt detached and not so relevant. Brown Girl Dreaming is one of the few verse-novels I read, and I enjoyed it a lot. The book was full of emotion! Time and memories in the book feel very fluid. Themes of family and home resonated with me a lot – especially the poems about Jacqueline adjusting to her life in NY. It brings up many important questions relevant for all students including, “What is home?” “What is belonging?” “What does it mean to be an outsider?”

    If I ever teach this book, I would love to teach it as a part of a project-based personal storytelling unit. As a creative verse memoir, the book invites students to consider how they can tell their own stories in creative, imaginative forms that leverage their own strength and passions. Inspired by the themes discussed in the book – students can engage in written and oral storytelling on theme including family, home, beliefs, name stories, and much more.

    I would also love to talk about Jacqueline Woodson with my students and incorporate some of her picture books. Show Way for example would be a great companion book to Brown Girl Dreaming, and students can dive into discussions about collective memory and collective storytelling!

    What resonated with me the most was being exposed to diverse genres and diverse authors that I can recommend to students with different interests. I also loved discussing the books in my book discussion groups – especially when we were thinking about how to incorporate some of the books into our teaching. Going forward, I would love to talk to younger adolescents, and find out which books they enjoy the most and why.

  6. Sia Brown says:

    As the first autobiography written in verse that I have ever read, I am stunned by how deeply profound this memoir is. From the first pages where the historical context is poetically set, to the pictures that are painted of loving grandparents that just “missed slavery by one generation,” to Jackie’s exploration with words and writing, these poems are both individually important and collectively extraordinary. I also enjoyed this book because I know my former students will be able to relate to it. Many of them are also living in two (or more) places where they often feel only half at home. A high percentage of students will leave our town for months of the year, usually to move in with extended family members; only a few do not return. For those that do return, they continue to bounce back and forth between places, always feeling alien or as if their hearts are somewhere else.

    I also appreciate the fact that Jackie struggled in school but still managed to find her voice. I think that this is something with which my students will also be able to relate. Jackie often compared herself to her brighter older sister, Odella. Jackie knew that she wasn’t as naturally gifted as Odella, but that still didn’t stop her from finding her power through writing. This can give students, especially struggling students, motivation to continue to learn and grow. They see that even the students who struggle the most can be successful if they’re passionate.

    In this class, many things have resonated for me. One of which is the importance of professional development for teachers. During the week on graphic novels, I realized that I lack in my own capacity to adequately teach visual elements of books. I also struggle with facilitating whole-group conversations around graphic novels. Because of this, I will not be able to maximize student learning and experiences around these types of novels; professional development is both needed and crucial! I think about teaching a text like March 3, and I worry that my students will miss pieces of the literature because I am not equipped to facilitate explorations of those novels.

    Moving forward, however, I want to know more about reading at the district level. In this class, we held a lot of book talks that I think would help me in the classroom, but I am not going to be a classroom teacher. What can I take away from this class to add to a district leader’s perspective? How can a district leader encourage and support adolescent reading? What are my next steps? Should I simply put books in the hands of my teachers? Should I facilitate district-wide book discussions? How can I be helpful? These are all questions I have on my mind, and I would love to explore them further!

  7. This is the first full length novel I have read written in verse. So while of course Woodson’s artistic style captivated me for the obvious reasons, it also got me thinking about how style takes shape more generally. It doesn’t take an expert to separate good, fluid writing from bad, clunky writing. That much is usually pretty obvious to anyone just a few paragraphs into a text. But what exactly makes some texts stylistically better than others? Also, beyond the visually apparent difference in formatting, what sets verse apart? (Perhaps the answers are obvious to those who have studied literature at depth, but I honestly don’t know!) It seems like it has something to do with phonemic patterns and fluctuations in syllabic emphasis, but I could only guess beyond that. This also makes me wonder if it comes naturally to authors (and poets and songwriters), or if they consciously deliberate every word and its placement.

    What resonated most in this class for me was the range of interpretations that came out of each text. I do not have much background in literature beyond a bit of recreational reading, so I pretty much only know my own interpretations and those of a select few friends who share my genre interests. It was amazing to see how these stories can mean so many different things to different readers. Even though I don’t expect to ever be in a situation of creating lesson plans based on literature, I hope to use this class experience to gain a deeper insight into the perspectives and values of those around me, in various settings throughout life.

  8. Rose Connelly says:

    I echo the sentiment a few people have made here that the verse gave Brown Girl Dreaming the dreamlike quality alluded to in the title.

    This definitely felt like a novel about childhood told from the perspective of adulthood—in that it reminded me of the way I now remember my own childhood: in flashes, vignettes, some of the connective tissue that gave the events logic forgotten or filled in by how family member shave told the story, other moments inexplicably as clear as the day they happened, even if those moments weren’t necessarily the most important.

    I do wonder if that is how teenagers remember their childhoods also, or if this is unique to the perspective that comes with (some tenuous grip on) adulthood. There’s a nostalgia to it, a trying to get a grip on an experience that can never fully be returned to. What do younger folks make of that?

    Furthermore, I wonder what might sway a teacher to select a novel in verse (such as this one) for a class, rather than a collection of poems. thoughts, classroom teachers?

    On a totally different topic, a few major take-aways:

    Like a lot of folks have said, the books. Particularly for me, Far, Far Away was such an unexpectedly involving experience. I felt swept up by that story in a way that reminded me of some of my favorite childhood reading experiences. I’d be curious to read other things by Tom McNeal when I have a bit more time.

    I’m also still thinking about The Hate U Give and The Arrival. I think it’s telling that I want to recommend both of them to many different people for many different reasons (I want to take a copy of The Arrival to work at my immigrant history museum because the story echoes our content in new and moving ways, but also to my filmmaker little brother because he’d appreciate the magic of the visuals). Both books showed me the value of being powerful stories on many different levels.

    Also just want to give some love to my discussion group. Y’all were a savvy bunch and I really appreciated getting to bend my perspective on how these books can be used and thought of through your lenses.

  9. Zheala Qayyum says:

    I really have grown to love the way verse lends itself to stories which is not a new thing. I am not sure if that comes from my love of stories or from my love of poetry. I really liked the way Brown girl dreaming flowed and weaved pictures in my mind. I believe for me the dream like atmosphere many people above have alluded is really how the images are created and drift in and out that I experienced while reading this book.
    Interestingly I have come across a couple more books in verse in search for books for the bibliography and found them fascinating. There is something poignant and poetic that very special to this way of writing a story that has really resonated with me. It is the perfect blend of metaphor, depth and art in my mind… like it leaves one with a lingering feeling even when the words have ended.

  10. Katelyn Natale says:

    I loved the structure of Brown Girl Dreaming. I thought writing a memoir in verse was inspired and such an appropriate choice to make when the memoir begins at birth. The memories, stories, and recollections one has a child can be sporadic, random, some long, some short, and some in between. It is interesting to think which small moments stand the test of time in our memories. I felt the titles, different lengths of poems/chapters/lines, punctuation, and italics use was a way to enhance this message and strengthens the reader’s relationship with the narrator. We are able to understand the way she thinks by the way she writers, which enhances her voice that only grows stronger throughout the book.

    The thing that resonated for me the most was having the opportunity to explore several different genres and discuss the books with a diverse group of peers. It is has been a while since I read a fantasy novel, and I had never read a book without words before “The Arrival.” I am thankful for the exposure to new books. Secondly, the group discussions resonated with me. Often, I read a book and am unable to share thoughts, ask questions, or bounce ideas off of other people because I am reading the book on my own. I gained so much from being able to have an extensive amount of time hearing people’s reactions and thoughts to the books we read.

  11. Emmanuel Oppong-Yeboah says:

    Jacqueline Woodson has a soft spot in my heart. Her novel “Melanin Sun” (which tells the story of a queer mother coming out to her son) is one I come back to, and think of often. What is so great about “Melanin Sun” is the complexity Woodson lends to the feelings her characters experience as they go through life changing events – the ways in which we are products of both the social context we are in and the people who are around us – the interconnectedness of things. I see that same interconnectedness throughout “Brown Girl Dreaming.” Woodson writes telescopically into various moments in history and we see the effect of those various instances in time on the book’s speaker. The book is useful for considering both how we write about ourselves and how we make meaning of the events going on around us. Both from a personal and a historical perspective the verse poems in the book chart how the changes in the nation, in the speaker’s family, and in the speaker’s community are effecting her. What I find while reading “Brown Girl Dreaming” is numerous entry points through which a reader could engage with the novels – these entry points give access to the verse on a number of levels. As a reader I can enjoy the poetic language Woodson employs, or I can enjoy the detailing of events, I can revel in the detailed accounts of family lore and history, or I can fix myself to the emotional development of Woodson herself. All this is available in a reading.

  12. Lisa Wu says:

    Reading Brown Girl Dreaming makes me better appreciate the art of “blank-leaving” in creating art. We fill our daily conversation with small talks because we dread the awkward silence. In telling stories, we are used to a space filled with details, words and emotional overspill. Reading this piece of work is refreshing. My mind does not stop even when the three-line verse ends on that page. The sound lingers on and creates an echoing sound in my brain.

    That said, I am not very confident to bring this verse to the classroom. My past experience with teaching poems is limited to techniques such as alliteration, rhyme and so on. It does not feel right to apply the rhetorical analysis in the case here. I hope to expand my skill set in teaching verses in the classroom.

  13. Sonya B says:

    When I first read Brown Girl Dreaming a couple of years ago, it was in a book club of friends who are also African American women. We selected themes every few months around which to make our reading selections, and one of theme was “Black, Blue, and Female in America”. With that theme, we read, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf and other canonical texts about African American women’s experiences. At that reading, like Sia, I was struck most by the themes of family and home that connect most with my personal experience. I also remember being pulled in by the narrative voice–a young, blossoming, brown and burgeoning as a writer and as a female– Woodson chose to tell her experience.

    During reading this week, however, I am reading it in a different context—not only of our adolescent literature course—but also having just coincidently read other novels-in verse. One of them, My Name is Jason, Mine Too: Our Story, Our Way, is part of my annotated bibliography. Another is an award-winning, gripping novel by Jason Reynolds, Long Way Down. Finally, there’s Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes, that we teach in one of our ninth grade courses. Reading Brown Girl Dreaming in this context what I’m noticing, is two things: First, even though they are all novels in verse, the authors use the form in such disparate, yet effective ways, I’m amazed at the versatility and flexibility of the genre. I think I had underestimated and underappreciated it previously. Second, I’m noticing more the “verse” element as opposed to the “novel” element. So, similar to how last week when we were reading graphic novels, I had the epiphany that “ Hey, here is a story being jointly narrated in mixed media and I must give each its due,” now I’m realizing as a teacher of novels in verse, I’d have to strike a balance of attending to both the poetry devices and structure and the narrative devices and structure, and how the two intermingle to give meaning. Wow! (Lauren reminded me of this when I read her blog post about her experience listening to it, and therefore, not being about to notice some of the verse elements.)

    And that brings me to what, in the course, has resonated most for me: how enormously diverse and varied young adult literature is, but how even more diverse and varied my knowledge and skills have to be to do justice teaching it to students. There is a depth of experience, enjoyment, appreciation and meaning students and I will miss, if I don’t recognize this fact. I think I am guilty of having had a patronizing perspective of young adult literature when I first entered the class. I was juxtaposing “ya lit” with the “traditional canon” we so often teach in schools. I had sort of a “How hard can it be to teach young adult literature” kind of attitude. Going forward, I will strive to recognize and rid myself of this bias, which I’m guessing will continue to rear it’s ugly head in unexpected places and times.

    Also going forward—and this is much simpler—I would love to have a “Must Read” list to recommend to high school students. Because our annotated bibliographies had to have a fairly narrow focus (and for good reason), I couldn’t create such a list, but I’d still love to have a this- book- will- change- your- life-transform- your- relationship- to-reading, etc. list. Of course, this is a personal and often quite subjective, experience. However, if any of you have a title that you would put on that list, I’d love to know what it is. Mine is The Book Thief by Mark Zusak.

  14. One of the things I appreciated most about Brown Girl Dreaming is that it lies outside my reading comfort zone. I’ve always struggled with poetry, and it’s been hard to figure out if that’s because it was poorly taught to me, or if it’s just not a medium I connect with very well. I find myself tripping over the lines, and struggling to be patient with the text. In that way, perhaps I should have taken a page out of Lauren’s book and listened to this story instead, although I agree with her and Lisa that the visual element of reading a book in verse is also important in drawing greater meaning from the work. That said, I did think that Jacqueline Woodson’s voice came through especially distinct and clear, even in just reading. It has an absolute lyrical quality that draws a reader in and holds their attention while she weaves her story. Even though this was a bit of a challenge, and made me slow down a little more than I like to, I’m glad that I did.

    I have absolutely loved this class. As someone from outside of HGSE, it’s been a pleasure to participate in discussions conducted through an education lens, and to be exposed to so many wonderful books I wasn’t aware of before. I especially appreciated exploring graphic novels and picture books for older readers, which is something I think is important, but about which I previously didn’t have a lot of personal knowledge. And beyond that, I’m thankful to have had this experience among a thoughtful, wonderful group of peers. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts.

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