Jacqueline Woodson and Marilyn Nelson wrote extraordinary memoirs, which are also verse novels. If you haven’t read them, you should. Right now.
Brown Girl Dreaming won the 2014 National Book Award and is Jacqueline Woodson’s autobiography told in free verse. Covering the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Woodson writes her family history – and US history in the South and the North – and weaves the story of how she became a writer throughout.
This is a masterful novel in verse. Each poem can stand on its own yet each poem contributes to the whole and refers both forward and backwards in the text. I read the entire book on the floor of the kid playroom at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts where my kids were perfectly happy to build and read because I could not leave this amazing book.
Similar to Brown Girl Dreaming, how I discovered poetry, is about growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and coming to find words as your answer to pain and joy equally. Marilyn Nelson explains this is partially her story and partially the story of “The Speaker” and in doing so removes it slightly from close reading of a traditional memoir. She builds each poem about a gap in the “speaker’s” understanding so she can document the growth and transformation of a young girl. “As she grows older, the holes are less obviously evident, but they are always there. Her maturing voice, growing self-awareness, and broadening interests are a major theme of the book,” (101). Yet each individual poem is still a sonnet – some are unrhymed and don’t have the traditional turn at the end, but still fit the sonnet form.
One of my favorite lines is from Attic Window. “The more time I spend in the library, / the less sure I am about everything,” (57). As the poems build, you can see how the Speaker is rooted in her family as foundation which gives her the courage and need to move into the land of words.