In Brown Girl Dreaming, author Jacqueline Woodson takes us on a journey of her childhood. The book provides an insight into her younger years and how it influenced her growth and life choices.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

In 2015, I attended the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York, where Jacqueline Woodson was the keynote speaker. I hadn’t heard about this author in my part of the world, so I was unfamiliar with her books. She delivered the keynote address and recited passages from her book from memory. The words were emotive and her delivery was beautiful. You could close your eyes and imagine that you were listening to an audiobook. It took a while, but I finally read one of her books and it was captivating.

Style of Brown Girl Dreaming

The book is a memoir, written in free verse. It’s a unique style of writing which can make a book more attractive to read, especially for non-readers.

Summary of Brown Girl Dreaming

This is a story of the author’s childhood, written with help from the memories of those who bore witness. It is a story of an African American girl’s journey from Ohio to Greenville, South Carolina to Brooklyn, New York. Jacqueline Woodson was born in Ohio during the height of the Civil Rights Movement to parents who would soon separate. Her mother moves her and her siblings to their grandparents’ home in Greenville, South Carolina.

For her mother, Mary Anne Irby, home is no longer the same without her siblings. She longs to create a home for her children and herself. She travels to New York, leaving behind her children in the care of her parents, Gunnar and Georgiana Irby. The author shares her almost idyllic childhood while being raised by her loving grandparents. Their impact on her life is tangible to adulthood.

Jacqueline Woodson as a child
Photo courtesy of Goodreads
Jacqueline Woodson as a child
Photo courtesy of Goodreads

Characters in Brown Girl Dreaming

The Mother: Mary Anne Irby

Jacqueline’s mother tries to create a fresh start for her family after her divorce. She is strong and loving, and the author focuses on her mother’s quest to achieve independence. Mary Anne has a faithful support structure in her parents.

The Maternal Grandparents: Gunnar and Georgiana Irby

The author describes Gunnar and Georgiana as loving, involved, and dedicated grandparents. The Woodson children form close bonds with them. Gunnar works in a printing press and faces his own challenges with racism. Georgiana takes extra work as a cleaner to enable her to feed the extra mouths now under her roof. The grandparents are the principal contributors to the children’s values.

The Siblings: Dell, Hope and Roman

The author shares a close bond with her siblings. The youngest, Roman, is born from her mother’s relationship after divorce. Roman’s health struggles feature strongly in the book. Dell is bright and gifted. Hope is into science and how things work and he has an incredible voice.

The Best Friend: Maria

The author has an enduring friendship with Maria. Maria lives in the same building as Jacqueline and is more like part of her family. It’s heartwarming to learn that their friendship continues to this day.

The Author: Jacqueline Woodson

In the book, the author tries to find her own place in the world. Her siblings are all gifted and she feels inadequate. There are hints of dyslexia that affect her learning and reading. Yet, the written word draws her and her love for poetry becomes clear.

Woodson's family
Photo courtesy of Goodreads
Woodson’s family
Photo courtesy of Goodreads

Themes in Brown Girl Dreaming

The Civil Rights Movement is a backdrop to this book. The author highlights the stark differences between the North and South during this time. It is interesting to bear witness to her mother’s change in behavior as she moves from Ohio to South Carolina.

Religion also features strongly. The author’s grandmother is a Jehovah’s Witness and the grandchildren adopt this religion which plays a role in their upbringing and socialization.

Love is a powerful theme that flows throughout this book. There is parental love, sibling love (for the author’s siblings and her mother’s love for her own siblings), and the love that you can find within a friendship.

Words that Resonate in Brown Girl Dreaming

You’ll face this in your life someday, my mother will tell us over and over again. A moment when you walk into a room and no one there is like you.

Brown Girl Dreaming, p22, written by Jacqueline Woodson

Growing up in South Africa during apartheid, the author’s words resonated with me. As a person of color and as a woman. As a brown girl dreaming.

I’m not ashamed, she says, cleaning is what I know. I’m not ashamed if it feeds my children.

Brown Girl Dreaming, p58, written by Jacqueline Woodson

There were many passages that moved me in this book, but none more than this. It echoed the sentiment of so many parents during a time when there were limited job options because of the color of one’s skin. There was no shame in working to provide for your children.

Author Jacqueline Woodson
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Author Jacqueline Woodson
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Brown Girl Dreaming: Highly Recommended

The book is so beautifully written. It’s a fluid writing style. It is not accusatory in tone about the time in which the author grew up. It’s an honest account of Jacqueline Woodson’s path to adulthood and the stepping stones in her journey. It’s warm and non-judgmental. It doesn’t have to resonate with you for you to enjoy the insight into her growing years. Now I finally understand how the author so easily memorized her reading passages for the writers’ conference.


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is a uniquely written memoir that is well worth the read. Have you read any of Woodson’s works? Let us know in the comments!