“I believe in Christmas and the New World. I believe that there is good in each of us no matter who we are or what we believe in.”

woodsonThe Brown Baggers met on Thursday, March 12, to discuss Jacqueline Woodson’s book, Brown Girl Dreaming.  Woodson’s memoir in verse chronicles growing up from Ohio, to South Carolina, and finally home in Brooklyn throughout the volatile racial and class tensions of the 1960’s.

Told in verse in a series of vivid snapshots, Woodson’s book tells the story of her birth in Ohio, and then her move to South Carolina where she spent much of her childhood living with her siblings under the care of her grandparents. She grows up with segregation, religion, and violence, but also a strong sense of family and a love of place. Finally, she tells of her family move to Brooklyn, which brings its own kinds of gains and losses.

The Brown Baggers had a lively discussion about both the themes and technique of the book. All were very impressed by Woodson’s ability to fill even the sparse text used with imagery and feeling, praising her use of verbs. Some found difficulty grappling with the experience of an ongoing story told in verse format, while others found this refreshing and useful once they became accustomed to it. It was suggested that the audiobook, which is read by the author, might improve the experience.

Many Brown Baggers were pleased to find commonalities in Woodson’s life with their own, despite varied experiences. The ideas of community and family featured heavily in the book, along with migration. Even though not everyone had the same sort of lives, many empathized with Woodson’s experiences gaining and keeping friendships as she grew up, and the powerful feelings which accompany them.

Woodson’s work brought up thoughts and comparisons on diversity in religion, personal experience with not fitting in, and at what age certain topics and experiences are common.

The Brown Baggers agreed that they enjoyed the book and conversation immensely, especially as a Same Page pick, and were interested in looking at more of Woodson’s work in the future.

The Brown Baggers will discuss Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata at our next meeting. During the current closure, the dates have not yet been finalized. When the meeting happens, it will be at the Central Branch, and newcomers are always welcome.


Other Books Mentioned:

Brown Girl Dreaming (Audiobook Version), read by Jaqueline Woodson
—-Also available as an Overdrive eBook and Audiobook
Red at the Bone by Jaqueline Woodson
Another Brooklyn by Jaqueline Woodson
Run by Ann Patchett (read by Brown Baggers in January 2009)
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

NPR Interviews with Jaqueline Woodson:

“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.”

woodsonBooks on Tap read  Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming ,  on March 5th at Champion Brewery as part of JMRL’s community-wide Same Page initiative. Many of our readers were surprised that the National Book Award winning title was aimed at upper elementary and middle schoolers. We were taken by the descriptive, lyrical writing, and Woodson’s keen observations. She gives the reader rich descriptions with the fewest words, allowing us to generate vivid images  of food, gardens, and the homes she shares with her family. Would a lyrical novel, written in verse, have been easier for Woodson to read as a kid? The book works for all age levels: older readers appreciate the references to events of the 60s and 70s while younger readers encounter them for the first or second time. Woodson alludes to some difficulty in school which made one of our readers ask if this book would have been easier for her to read as a child. 

Woodson begins life in Ohio where her parents live close to her father’s family. While still young, her mother moves the children to her parent’s home in South Carolina. The grandparents raise Woodson and her siblings while her mother is in New York City until they are reunited in Brooklyn. Woodson tries to locate home among these places, detailing the love and support from her maternal family, the Jehovah’s Witness church, the friends she makes in Brooklyn, the Black Panthers she meets and even her seldom seen paternal family, who are descended from the Woodsons of Monticello. Change is constant in her young life, but she generously takes the best part of each, in contrast to other memoirs we’ve read lately which are much more cruel to the author’s family. 

A few of us listened to the audio book, which is read by the author, whose accent reflects neither her South Carolina nor Brooklyn accents. It was interesting to hear the emphasis she put on her poems when read out loud. JMRL will  feature poems from Brown Girl Dreaming during Poem In Your Pocket day on April 23rd. 

More Information:

About the author 

About the book 

Interview with the author 

Other works 

Links mentioned: 

Cale School Poster

MiddleLost poetry

 Books on Tap Information:

  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (April 2)
  • There, There by Tommy Orange (May 7)
  • Clock Dance by Anne Tyler (June 4)

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“The most frightening thing in the world is to discover the abnormal in that which is closest to us.”

woman in the dunesThe Brown Baggers met on Thursday, February 20 to discuss Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes.

Considered one of the greatest Japanese novels of the twentieth century, The Woman in the Dunes is a surreal, existential exploration of the individual in a modern, post-WWII society. Abe’s protagonist, who remains unnamed until the end of the story, is an amateur entomologist exploring the seaside for new species of beetles. When he is invited to stay with one of the villagers for the night, he is led down a steep sand dune to find a woman living in a run-down house half-buried by sand. During the night, two shovels and a bucket are delivered from the top of the dune and the woman begins to dig the sand that has fallen into the pit. When a ladder does not appear the next day to carry the man out of the pit, he realizes he is imprisoned with this woman and they must shovel the sand every night or else die of dehydration. In this nightmarish allegory similar in tone to works by Abe’s idols Franz Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe, the man comes to terms with living in a world of “ceaseless and mindless labor.”

Abe leaves much of the story’s ending open to interpretation and the Brown Baggers had a lively debate over the allegory’s lessons. The main character, who we later learn is named Niki Junpei, is a self-involved person who believes he can outsmart his captors. However, his arrogance slowly abates when he accepts to work for the greater good rather than himself. The group also questioned whether or not Junpei connects with the community by the end of the novel. Is he content where he is at or will he attempt to escape again? Some believed that now that Junpei has a routine and thus a purpose, he is satisfied with his new life.

The group was also unsure what to make of the character who shares her home with Junpei and is referred to only as “the woman.” They were confused by her erratic behavior and felt that her portrayal as a second class citizen, although accurate for the time period in which the novel was written, reads as outdated and misogynistic to today’s audience. 

Despite the lingering questions, many of the Brown Baggers enjoyed this challenging book. The Woman in the Dunes continues to intrigue with its mysteries and forces readers to question the role of the individual in modern society.

Film version (English subtitles not available)

Also mentioned:

Jean-Paul Sarte – No Exit

David Guterson – Snow Falling on Cedars

The Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, March 12 to discuss Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.