Family Stories by Donalyn Miller

brown girl dreaming


I began the morning with goodbyes. The conference was over and it was time for all of us to go. After a quick hug from my friend, Katherine, she left for a writing retreat and I left for the next leg on a two-week trip.

My friend, Paul offered to drive me to the Indianapolis airport on his way home, so I climbed into his Expedition and we left. Paul and I don’t see each other that often, so we enjoyed catching up—chatting about our families, what we were writing, and the books we were reading. Paul pointed at a little notepad in the cup holder, “Write down any books you talk about, so I can take a look at them later.” The two-hour drive flew by and before I knew it, I was curbside with my bags, hugging Paul goodbye.

The busyness of mindless travel tasks kept me distracted as I navigated the airport. Check my suitcase. Show my ID. Shoes off. Shoes back on. Find the gate. When I settled into my airplane seat, sudden loneliness caught me sideways. By day’s end, I would be 2,000 miles away from my sweet man in Texas and our grown baby girls. Boxed in by strangers on all sides. No one loves me here.

Pain demands to be felt, and all that.

OK, enough. You can’t fall apart, Donalyn. Pull yourself together and get your book. You know what to do.

Reaching into my bag, I took out Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. Discovering that everyone (OK, maybe five people) had read it and loved it, I begged Colby to loan me his copy. Another friend, Jillian power-read it during the conference, so I could take it with me. I felt a little guilty about wheedling Colby for  it because he never tells me no, but not that guilty. It’s Jackie Woodson.

As I started reading, It was OK that I didn’t have anyone to talk to because Jackie was teaching me how to listen. Lord knows that’s a lesson I still need to learn.

Falling into the book, I wasn’t lonely anymore. Jackie’s family welcomed me in and I sat at her grandmother’s kitchen table for the next few hours. I could smell the collard greens cooking and I wondered if her grandmother used a little bacon grease in her greens like my Nanny did. I cried when Jackie’s mom pulled the leaves off a willow switch and whipped her brother. I could clearly see my Nanny’s willow tree. It made me miss her. I would get a switch for her right now if it meant I could be with her one more time.

Jackie catches words, blows on them, and floats them on to me.

As I read, a silver thread flowed out of Brown Girl Dreaming, and twined up my wrist to my chest—connecting Jackie’s family to me and making them part of me. Following Colby’s scribbled brackets around lines and folded page corners like messages for me to find, he was with me in the book, too. That thread connects me to Jackie now, but it also connects me to Colby, Jillian, and everyone who will ever read Brown Girl Dreaming.

When I reached Portland, I met up with two of my Maine friends, Justin and Melissa. Justin had finished Brown Girl Dreaming and Melissa was still reading it. She admitted that the book was calling to her, and she planned to go back to it after dinner. We talked about what we loved about Jackie’s story, and we were excited to pass this story on to children.

This is my reading family—the storytellers, the story travelers, and the story keepers. The people who bring stories to life, the people living in those stories, and the people who keep those stories alive.  Every story I read connects me to someone, and these stories become my family stories to remember and share.

When a loved one passes on or passes through our lives, all we have left is the stories. Told at the kitchen table. Made up under a willow tree. Passed hand-to-hand in a book. These threads connect us in an endless web that stretches to infinity.


Donalyn Miller has been a fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies teacher. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy co-founder, Colby Sharp), and facilitates the Twitter reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.