Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (2014)

ypl_woodson_Brown_Girl_DreamingA memoir in verse about Jacqueline Woodson’s childhood, formative years, and extended family’s history in South Carolina and Ohio. Poems are 1-3 pages, free verse, and range from topics of the speaker’s birth, moving to New York, family who lived under Jim Crow, and her relationship with her parents.

from The National Book Award websiteRaised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

Why This Text Works

The book offers instructors various ways to incorporate supplemental texts, whether choosing to stick closely to the book and author, or venturing into all kinds of examinations about contemporary issues. Students can engage by:

  • Reflecting on themselves as readers, and readers of poetry
  • Comparing a memoir-in-verse to prose
  • Examining individual poems, sections, and the entire book
  • Exploring themes, patterns, variations, characters, places, and historical events
  • Reading aloud and performing poetry
  • Researching historical figures and events of the Civil Rights era, particularly in South Carolina
  • Relating issues of Jim Crow and segregation to contemporary issues of race their cities

Poetry and Rhetoric

Teachers may be wondering how a collection of poetry will ground a semester of rhetorically based assignments, how this class will avoid becoming one on literary analysis, and what broader social themes students will explore.

A course centered around Woodson’s poem can focus largely on audience. Students can examine their previous experiences with reading and reading poetry; then reflect on the role of the audience as reader and listener, as they perform and listen to poems in class. Students can examine poetic devices as rhetorical devices, asking themselves what the author’s appeals are, what the author is trying to persuade us of, how the author is trying to identify with us, what hidden arguments (enthymeme) we can discern, how the author constructs her ethos, and how the collection raises issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, migration, slavery, reconstruction, violence, abandonment, and civil rights.

In short, literature and poetic language can be an occasion for rhetorical study, especially with this memoir in verse that explores history, race, class, and gender.

Brown Girl Dreaming Syllabus



Reading a Poem: 20 Strategies (The Atlantic)

“Young Adult Literature: A Writer Strikes Through Genre” by Steven VanderStaay (NCTE English Journal, via JSTOR)

National Book Foundation (presenters of the National Book Award)


National Book Award Video (Youtube)


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Quick Ideas

Free-write ideas:

  • Students reflect on their own reading of poetry. How was it taught to them?
  • Students find a poem from The Poetry Foundation website. Students describe similarities and differences between their found (or assigned) poem and one or more of Woodson’s poem. Students identify voice, theme, argument, or use of rhetorical modes.
  • Students write a reflection essay on how learning that Brown Girl Dreaming received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Does that change their perception of the book, change their feelings about themselves as a reader, and change whether they think they should be reading this in college?
  • Students identify themes in their own lives and write a compare/contrast with the themes identified in the book.
  • Students write about a particular place’s physical effects on them (modeled after the poem “)
  • Students annotate 1-3 poems, then perform and share their annotations.
  • Students read the poem “Other People’s Memory” and write the story of their own name.

Instructor Reflections

Links to instructor reflections will go here.

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