Poetry to enhance your empathy and connection

My book club just read a stunningly beautiful book: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. It is her memoir of her childhood growing up in both rural South Carolina, with her grandparents as well as her mother and siblings, and in New York City. It’s told in free verse, and every poem is highly evocative of her feelings and experiences. Although it’s called a book for young adults, we 60-something women all found it deeply moving.

Let me just share part of one poem to give you a taste of it, called “stevie and me.” Ms. Woodson describes what it was like to discover in the library a book with an African-American child as the main character, which just wasn’t done much in those days. (John Steptoe wrote it in 1969.)

“Every Monday, my mother takes us

to the library around the corner. We are allowed

to take out seven books each. On those days,

no one complains that all I want are picture books.

Those days, no one tells me to read faster

to read harder books

to read like Dell.

No one is there to say, Not that book,

when I stop in front of the small paperback

with a brown boy on the cover.

Stevie. …

If someone had taken

that book out of my hand

said, You’re too old for this


I’d never have believed

that someone who looked like me

could be in the pages of the book

that someone who looked like me

had a story.”

Her poems are not just about growing up black in the ’60’s and ’70’s in the south and the north. They are about her individual experience with her extended family and her friends and school and learning that she was driven to be a writer, and so much more. Here is the ending to her poem about talking to grandfather, “Daddy Gunnar”, on the phone when they are in Brooklyn and they miss him so much.

How are my New York grandbabies, he wants to know.

We’re good, I say, holding tight to the phone

but my sister is already grabbing for it,

Hope and even Roman, all of us

hungry for the sound of his faraway voice.

Y’all know how much I love you?

Infinity and back again, I say

the way I’ve said a million times.

And then, Daddy says to me, Go on and add

a little bit more to that.”

As the book jacket says, “Poignant and powerful, each poem in Brown Girl Dreaming is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world.” I highly recommend this book.

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