In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Brown Girl Dreaming: my Newbery hope

Dear Annie,

I sell a lovely little board book, called
My Face Book
, with photographs of babies' faces, one to a page.  There are several books like that, but what I particularly like about this one is that the faces are majority non-white.  It's one of those happy baby books.  I showed it to a customer the other day (Caucasian) who was looking for a book of faces for a baby gift.  Thanks, she said, but this one is “too diverse,” and she added a sentence I've heard more times than you'd expect over the years: "I want him to see faces that look like him."  One can point out that a 3 month-old has no idea what he looks like, or that they’re all human babies, or that the bunnies in Goodnight Moon don't look like him either, but it won't change anything.
I bring this up to say that there's a section of the white buying public -- no matter what their political beliefs may be -- who aren't comfortable mixing books about children of color with their own children.  It's a minority, but I'm frequently reminded that it's there.  When kids get up to the chapter book age, it's really noticeable: it's hard to sell novels about African Americans to some white parents.

A year ago, when I was selecting yet-to-be-published books to carry in our store, 
Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson was one of the offerings from Penguin.  My sometimes cynical self, I confess, heaved a sigh.  It’s a memoir written in poetry – poetry! not a big seller either – focusing on an African American girl growing up in South Carolina and New York in the 1960s and 70s.  I was skeptical about being able to sell it.  But when I got around to reading it, I knew I had to try: it’s an amazing book.

We won't have a girl named Jack, my mother said.

And my father's sisters whispered,
A boy named Jack was bad enough.
But only so my mother could hear.
Name a girl Jack, my father said,
and she can't help but 
grow up strong.
Raise her right, my father said,
and she'll make that name her own.

Name a girl Jack
and people will look at her twice, my father said. 

For no good reason but to ask if her parents
were crazy, my mother said.
So how was I going to sell the book?  A review in the New York Times raved about the universal nature of the story: how it would resonate with any girl growing up.  “The title seems to confine the book in too narrow a box,” wrote the reviewer.  “Will girls who aren’t brown know, without prompting, that they too are invited to the party?”

Because we have a right, my grandfather tells us –
we are sitting at his feet and the story tonight is

why people are marching all over the South –

to walk and sit and dream wherever we want.

First they brought us here.
Then we worked for free.  Then it was 1863,
and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.

And that’s why people are so mad.

The reality of a black family’s life in the South during the civil rights movement is here.  There are sit-ins and marches, back-of-the-bus moments, anger, pride, a school burned.  To dismiss the title and sell it as an Everygirl memoir denies who Woodson is. She is a brown girl, first in the South, then in Brooklyn.  The book shows us a loving and very religious family, a marriage that has ended, joy in nature, friendship, and how it feels to discover the amazing power of words. The poetry, the language, is what plaits all the elements together. 
How amazing these words are that slowly come to me.
How wonderfully on and on they go.

Will the words end, I ask
whenever I remember to.

Nope, my sister says, all of five years old now,
and promising me

 Brown Girl Dreaming was released at the end of August, and despite my enthusiasm, sold not as well in the store as I’d hoped, but not horrendously either.  I wrote a blurb that tried to say how much the book encompassed, and even listed page numbers of four poems which would give a browser a sense of the many elements of the book. Then in November, it won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. 

The awards ceremony had a horrifying incident in which Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), MC of the event and a friend of Woodson’s, commented as she left the podium, “Jackie’s allergic to watermelon.  Just let that sink in your mind.”  Woodson wrote an incredibly eloquent response in the New York Times.  

That Handler remark – of a white man flamingly uncomfortable with the blackness of a friend and colleague – brings me back to the rejection of the baby book.  Would Handler shop for a board book with not too much diversity?

The National Book Award had many happier outcomes also.  My pile of Brown Girl Dreaming started to sell a lot faster: that gold circle on the cover said “read me” better than I had been able to.  It's on the bestseller list now.  But the National Book Award for children is an odd duck: it doesn’t guarantee that a book will stay in the public eye over the years.

The award which makes a massive difference in kids’ literature, of course, is the Newbery Medal, which will be announced this coming Monday, February 2.  The last time a book with an African American protagonist won the prize was 2000, my first year selling books.  Before that, one has to go back to the years of Woodson’s childhood: the 1970s. 

So I am hoping – and we know my record on Newbery predictions is abysmal – that Brown Girl Dreaming will pick up another gold circle for its cover on Monday, and that it will enter the canon of classics which all kids will be reading for decades to come.  I’ll be tuning in for the webcast,at 9 a.m.




1 comment:

  1. A Newbery Honor, as well as a Sibert Honor and a Coretta Scott King Award! Good call.