About the Holiday
This month we celebrate poets and the poetry they create to illuminate our lives in new and often surprising ways. National Poetry Month is a world-wide event, bringing together tens of millions of poets, readers, teachers, librarians, booksellers, publishers, and other poetry lovers in readings, school visits, and special events. To celebrate, check out some events in your area and enjoy reading the work of your favorite—or a new—poet. You might even try writing your own poetry! Get inspired with today’s book!
I received a copy of Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks from Abrams Books for Young Readers for review consideration. All opinions about the book are my own.
Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks
Written by Suzanne Slade | Illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera
Growing up in Chicago, Gwendolyn Brooks’ family didn’t have a lot of money but they did own “great treasure—a bookcase filled with precious poems.” Every night Gwendolyn’s father read aloud from those books, and, mesmerized, Gwendolyn memorized poems to recite for her visiting aunts. “When she was seven, Gwendolyn began arranging words into poems of her own.” One day, her mother read her poems and declared that one day she would be as great as Paul Laurence Dunbar—Gwendolyn’s favorite poet.
Gwendolyn loved to sit on her porch and watch the clouds float by. She filled notebooks about them and about her “paper dolls, ticktock clocks, raindrops, sunsets, and climbing rocks.” When Gwendolyn was eleven, she sent four of her poems to a newspaper, and, much to her delight, they were printed. A poem she sent to a national magazine also appeared in print.
Gwendolyn was looking forward to a bright future when the Great Depression hit. But Gwendolyn kept writing. In high school she was an outsider, never seeming to fit in despite trying several schools. “Gwendolyn felt invisible. But when words flowed from her pen, she became invincible.” After college she took whatever jobs she could find and continued writing. She got married and had a baby boy. Even though she was busy, she took poetry classes about modern poems and wrote in a new style herself.
She wrote about what and who she saw in her South Side Chicago neighborhood, Bronzeville. She began to win poetry contests and had some poems published in a well-known poetry journal. She and her family were still poor, but that didn’t stop her from writing “‘what she saw and heard in the street’” even when there was no electricity. Just as when she was a little girl, Gwendolyn “kept dreaming about a future that was going to be exquisite.”
One day, she gathered her best poems and submitted them to a book publisher in New York. Soon after, they wrote asking for more. She wrote and wrote until she had enough to send. With the next letter from the publisher, she learned that they “loved her poems!” They were published with the title A Street in Bronzeville. After that book, came a second, Annie Allen. Her poems were now read all over the world. They “helped people better understand others” and “changed the way some people thought and acted.”
Even with two books published, money was scarce. And yet she kept writing because “everywhere she looked, Gwendolyn saw more stories that needed to be told.” One day two things happened in Gwendolyn’s apartment: the electricity was turned off—again. And the phone rang. The reporter on the phone had one question for her: “‘Do you know that you have won the Pulitzer Prize?’” She and her young son danced around the apartment as “outside, exquisite clouds exploded in the sunset sky, because Gwendolyn had won the greatest prize in poetry!”
“Clouds,” a poem written by Gwendolyn Brooks when she was fifteen, follows the story. An Author’s Note giving more information about Brooks’ work, a timeline of her life, and resources are also included.
In her outstanding biography, Suzanne Slade highlights the prodigious talent of Gwendolyn Brooks, illuminating the influences, continual study, and inborn voice that informed and created her poetry. Gwendolyn’s self-confidence, unique perspective, and the support she received throughout her youth and career are strong themes that will inspire readers. Slade focuses on the awe Brooks found in her subjects, demonstrating her singular vision and how poetry is found in the everyday aspects of life. Beginning with Gwendolyn’s childhood, Slade links the events of Brooks’ life with beautiful imagery of the clouds she once likened to her exquisite future. Quotes are sprinkled throughout Slade’s lyrical text, allowing children to hear Brooks’ own voice and the dreams and pride had for her work.
Cozbi A. Cabrera’s acrylic paintings are stunning representations of Gwendolyn’s life. Her family life with her well-read and supportive family comes alive with images of their home, where the large glass bookcase has pride of place, portraits hang on the walls, Gwendolyn practices the piano while her mother exclaims over her poetry, and the family gathers for a meager dinner during hard times. For young readers, Cabrera visualizes the parts of Gwendolyn’s life that fed her imagination and work and the copious amounts of poetry that she created—even as a child. Images of Gwendolyn’s early publishing successes give way to the changes brought by the Depression, school, marriage, and motherhood, but a pen, paper, and books are still her constant companions. Scenes from Chicago give children a look at the city that inspired Gwendolyn’s poetry, and intermittent views of the pastel clouds let readers dream along with her.
A stirring biography to inspire the dreams of any child, Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks is a story that children will want to hear again and again. On its own or paired with Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry, the book also makes an impactful lesson for homeschooling. The book is highly recommended for home, school, and public library collections.
Ages 6 – 9
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2020 | ISBN 978-1419734113
Discover more about Suzanne Slade and her books on her website.
To learn more about Cozbi A. Cabrera, her books, and her art on her website.
Watch the Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks book trailer
National Poetry Month Activity
You’re a Poet, Don’t You Know It! Word Search Puzzle
Find the twenty poetry-related words in this printable puzzle then write a poem of your own!