by Jacqueline Woodson
First sentence: “I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital Columbus, Ohio, USA — a country caught between Black and White.”
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Content: There’s nothing objectionable. And it’s even an easy-ish read. Sure, it’s poetry, but it’s not difficult. Hand it to anyone with an interest in writing, kids, and history. It’s in our middle grade biography section at the bookstore.
I’m not quite sure where to start on this one. It seems We’ve (the collective we, here) been inundated by memoirs and biographies of celebrities, People of Note, and at first glance Jacqueline Woodson’s new book just falls into that pit of “celebrity” (of a sort) biographies.
Except, it’s not so much a biography or memoir as it is a reflection upon a childhood. Woodson makes her childhood an Everyperson experience, something that the reader can readily identify with, even if they didn’t have her exact same experiences.
Her childhood begins in Ohio, but mostly it’s spent in South Carolina, with her grandparents, and in Brooklyn, where her mother finally settled with Jacqueline and her brothers and sister. I kept trying to figure out the timeline (if she was born in 1963, then it must be…) but eventually, I just gave up and let myself get absorbed in the story.
And absorbed I was. Woodson wove historical elements into her story — sit-ins in the South; the way her grandmother felt about the way she was treated in stores by white people; music that was playing on the radio — all of which helped put her personal story in a larger framework. I could easily forget I was reading a memoir; it felt so much like a novel.
Part of that, too, was the form. Written in free verse, the memoir took on a lyrical quality. There were moments, especially toward the end, where I was moved by her insights not only in her life, but for Life in general.
One more thing: I appreciated her portrayal of religion. I get the sense she’s not a practicing Jehovah’s Witness anymore, but she portrayed the religion of her grandmother and her own childhood with respect. It was neither good nor bad; it was just a part of her life. And I found that refreshing.