Thursday, January 1, 2015

Sweet dreams

Previous posts, the Nobel Prize (Pamuk) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (Angelou); today, the National Book Award (NBA). The thoughtful, evocative, deceptively simple writer Jacqueline Woodson received the 2014 National Book Award for her poetic memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming.

Thinking about this book so close to thinking about I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (they were a month apart in the listening), I'm struck at the similarities of the childhoods of these two women. Their parents couldn't stay married, so each was sent to live (with beloved siblings) with their grandmothers in the rural South. Woodson's experiences are a good 30-40 years later, but the importance of these smart, independent women (the grandmothers) in the lives of these young writers-to-be can't be underestimated. It's clear their influence was felt long after the girls moved back to live with their mothers.

Woodson's experiences are written for younger readers, so her memoir -- which is provided in short, prose/poem-ish entries -- seems more internal than Angelou's. It's not so much what happened to me (although Woodson does provide the bare bones), but how it made me feel. And her feelings of confusion, separateness, deep love for her grandmother, loss at being separated from her (and at the death of her grandfather), glee at finding herself in exciting New York in the 1970s, wondering at her place in the world, along with the sheer pleasure of an ice cream cone on a warm summer day are all vividly and economically depicted in Woodson's prose, or is it poetry? (Since I only listened to this, I don't know how the entries appeared on the page. But Google Books shows me that they appear to be poems.)

More than Angelou, Woodson incorporates the events of in the great wide world into her poems, particularly the civil rights activities. She does this naturally, but I do get a slight sense of I'm writing for children and so must incorporate this here. I'm sure that -- based on the portrait she provides of her independent mother and grandmother -- there was political awareness in that household, but it does seem a little "lesson-ly." Of course, if the "lesson" intrigues a young reader, you can just put Rita Williams-Garcia or Christopher Paul Curtis into her hands.

While I appreciate a fine turn of phrase, it's hard to concentrate on these when you're listening ... unless you do a little rewind when something wonderful strikes your ears. I confess I didn't do this while listening, so my appreciation of the literary aspects of this book can't be shared. Let me just reproduce something cribbed from Google Books:

[from the page entitled "home"]

... Hall Street.
A front porch swing thirsty for oil.
A pot of azaleas blooming.
A pine tree.
Red dirt wafting up
around my mother's newly polished shoes.

Like Angelou before her, Woodson reads her own work. (Of the three Woodson books in this blog, all were read by others.) Despite my reservations about narrating authors, she is just fine at it. She doesn't have a particularly melodious voice, and certainly not the commanding delivery of Angelou, but her personal connection to the story is evident in her reading. She reads like she's reading poetry ... in that way that I've heard dozens of poets read: great use of the pause, but a tendency to draw out the vowels which I'm not crazy about. However, she resists that sing-song approach of many poets reading aloud. She's precise, like her poetry. And, yes, she does sing a little bit (although not "We Shall Overcome;" she reads that).

There's twangy, bluesy intro and outgo music to get you in the mood for those hot, humid South Carolina summers. In a swell finish, the audiobook ends with a final pluck and waa-waa echo of one guitar string. Now that's a thoughtful producer.

Now that it's January, the ALA Youth Media Awards predicting has begun. Brown Girl Dreaming is certain to show up, possibly more than once. It's what all the adult readers of literature for young people that I pay attention to are pegging for the Newbery Medal, and it will no doubt receive the Coretta Scott King as well. But what about the Sibert? The last book for young readers that won both the NBA and the Newbery: Louis Sachar's Holes (and that was 16 years ago).

[Although this particular red-dirt road is in Oklahoma, perhaps the landscape is similar to South Carolina? This photo was taken by Ks0stm and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Narrated by the author
Listening Library, 2014.  3:55

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