A City Comes Together Through Reading and Discussion: One Book, One Philadelphia

The appeal of “One Book, One Philadelphia,” a far reaching program now in its 16th year, brings a multicultural city together in reading and discussion. The majesty of this year’s chosen author, Jacqueline Woodson, and her book, Another Brooklyn, does not disappoint.

I am proud to write for Thrive Global, a resource committed to emotional and physical health, and one that realizes how deeply this goal is enhanced through reading and discussion.

On January 17, with honored author Jacqueline Woodson present at our Parkway Central Free Library, my hometown, Philadelphia, launched eight weeks of film screenings, panel discussions, performances and workshops, open and free for the public, held in venues all over the city with offerings geared to all ages. Programming concentrates on the themes of this year’s chosen book by Ms. Woodson, Another Brooklyn — friendship, family, parenting, loss, poverty, race, difference, neighborhood.

During this period our students read and discuss these themes, as well as the author’s writing style. This work, where, as in life, memories are both fleeting and disorganized, appears to be far more lilting poetry than prose. Through short paragraphs with blank spaces and flow of a non-consecutive time frame, Ms. Woodson’s depictions break hearts and inspire, offering enormous opportunities for sharing and reflection.

Philly’s grade school readers enjoy companion books by Ms. Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming and This Is the Rope: A Story From the Great Migration.

You should know that I am one of about 20 members of Philadelphia’s One Book Steering Committee. A uniting bond of all committee members is a love of books and belief that the One Book programs are an invaluable city resource. However, I am not and have never been part of a far smaller group that selects each year’s honored author and book.

What I learned, however, is this year’s selection of Another Brooklyn was agreed upon early in the selection process.

The author of 30 books, and winner of myriad awards, Ms. Woodson has been chosen the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress and the Children’s Book Council. Another Brooklyn is her second adult novel. Her first, Autobiography of a Family Photo, was written more than 20 years ago.

The short novel time-jumps non-consecutively from 1973 Brooklyn to earlier childhood memories in the Deep South to reflections twenty years later. Following their mother’s death, August, age 8, and Clyde, age 4, are taken by their father from a crumbling Tennessee farmhouse where summers brought delightful scents of huneysuckle to a dilapidated Brooklyn apartment buiding, surrounded by mean streets infested with junkies, discarded needles, and danger at every turn.

To ease her melancholy and survive, August develops intense friendships with Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, who protect each other, “our voices loud, our laughter even louder.” But the devoted union is destroyed by adversity, tragedy, and betrayal.

This journey is relived twenty years later when August, an Ivy League educated anthropologist, whose research (not surprisingly) centers on ritual relating to death, dying, and mourning, returns to Brooklyn for the burial of her father.

One of many high points of the author’s stage discussion at the launch was her explanation of the duplicity of the term gentrification: It is not improvement. It the displacement of the needy, increasing their hopelessness. In this interview Jacqueline Woodson showed a slight glimmer of impatience, expressing a definitive “No, they are each individuals,” when asked if the intense friendships of four she has written about is a composite of one person, as it has been described with Carrie, Samantha, and Charlotte in “Sex in the City.”

Brilliant authors always leave us wanting more and this is surely true in this short novel. August and Clyde’s mother suicides because she cannot bear the loss of her cherished brother’s death in Viet Nam. She warns her daughter to never trust women — to keep them “a whole hand away from the farthest tips of your (long) fingernails.” One cannot help but wonder if her marital relationship brought on this distrust and if, following her devastating loss, despite two children who needed her, the lack of trusted intimacy with her husband made her believe that life was no longer worth living.

in Another Brooklyn, the author describes an attentive and protective father. She also describes his fleeting, non-substantive relationships with women. (Interestingly, this also becomes August’s pattern after she leaves Brooklyn.) There are many men who are invested in their children, yet torment their wives through infidelity and withholding intimacy. Was August’s father one of them? Could it be that the author does not want to face within herself that August’s father’s treatment of his wife contributed to her inability to cope, her distrust of women, and her eventual suicide? Addressing this conundrum in a third adult novel would be a gift to Jacqueline Woodson’s readers.

The Philly launch concluded with a stirring performance of original poetry and music by 2016–2017 Philadelphia Poet Laureate Yolanda Wisher and her band, The Afroeaters. Although I could not hear many of the words sung, the message of poetry and song inspired by Another Brooklyn (and four bonded young girls, determined to face danger arm in arm, protecting each other, before life crashed down on them) was crystal clear: Despite all, we will endure, and we will hope. Despite all, we shall overcome.

One Book, One Philadelphia culminates on March 14 when Jacqueline Woodson returns to our Parkway Central Free Library. Perhaps you can be present at this important event or one of many leading up to it. All events can be found at freelibrary.org/onebook.

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