April 7 – It’s National Poetry Month

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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.

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Image copyright Cozbi A. Cabrera, 2020, text copyright Suzanne Slade, 2020. Courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers.

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.

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Image copyright Cozbi A. Cabrera, 2020, text copyright Suzanne Slade, 2020. Courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers.

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.”

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Image copyright Cozbi A. Cabrera, 2020, text copyright Suzanne Slade, 2020. Courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers.

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.”

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Image copyright Cozbi A. Cabrera, 2020, text copyright Suzanne Slade, 2020. Courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers.

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.

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Image copyright Cozbi A. Cabrera, 2020, text copyright Suzanne Slade, 2020. Courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers.

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.

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Image copyright Cozbi A. Cabrera, 2020, text copyright Suzanne Slade, 2020. Courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers.

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

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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!

You’re a Poet, Don’t You Know It! Puzzle | You’re a Poet, Don’t You Know It! Solution

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You can find Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | IndieBound

January 27 – It’s Creativity Month

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About the Holiday

January is a time for reflection and new beginnings. What better time to start thinking creatively and finding your inner artist, scientist, inventor, thinker? Go ahead and do the thing you’ve always wanted to do!

Stitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt

Written by Patricia C. McKissack | Illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera

In this story told through poems, a little girl begins telling of her life, starting with a recitation on Gee’s Bend Women: “Gee’s Bend women are / Mothers and Grandmothers / Wives / Sisters and Daughters / Widows.” They are every kind of woman you know, doing every type of work and activity. “Gee’s Bend women are / Talented and Creative / Capable / Makers of artful quilts / Unmatched. / Gee’s Bend women are / Relatives / Neighbors / Friends— / Same as me.”

In Who Would Have Thought, the girl muses on how perceptions change. “For as long as anyone can remember,” she says, the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama have created quilts that were slept under, sat on, and wrapped around the sick or cold. But now those same quilts are “…hanging on museum walls, / their makers famous….”

When she was just a tot “Baby Girl” reveals in Beneath the Quilting Frame, she played under the quilting frame, listening to her “mama, grandma, and great-gran / as they sewed, talked, sang, and laughed / above my tented playground.” She remembers the “steady fingers  /[that] pieced together colorful scraps of familiar cloth / into something / more lovely / than anything they had been before” as her mother sang her a lullaby.

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Image copyright Cozbi A. Cabrera, courtesy of Random House Books for Young Readers

In Something Else, “Baby Girl” is growing too big to play beneath the frame. Her legs becoming longer and her mind full of “recipes for eleven kinds of jelly…how to get rid of mold…and the words to a hundred hymns and gospel songs” while she waits her turn at the frame. Finally, in Where to Start? her time comes. The girl asks her mama how to begin and she answers, “‘Look for the heart. / When you find the heart, / your work will leap to life… / strong, beautiful, and… / independent.’”

In Remembering, the girl thinks about how her mama has told her that “cloth has a memory.” As she chooses the cloth that will become her quilt she sees the life and the history in each. 

Nothing Wasted sees Grandma pulling apart a red-and-white gingham dress stitch by stitch to become a quilting square that the girl suddenly knows “will be the heart of my quilt.” In Puzzling the Pieces the girl and her grandma stand over the quilting frame fitting the squares together in the perfect way to tell the girl’s story. Her quilt comes together piece by piece to tell the history of Gee’s Bend in The River Island. The brown strips along three sides mirror the muddy waters surrounding her town. The fourth side is a green strip—“a symbol of the fields where my ancestors / worked cotton from can to can’t— / can see in the morning until / can’t see at night.” Lined up next to the green strip are six squares representing the small communities “where families with / the same name / are not kin by blood / but by plantation.”

Being Discovered is portrayed with “a large smoke-gray square”—the color of the Great Depression and the 15 minutes of fame Gee’s Bend garnered when discovered “by sociologists, historians, / educators, and journalists” who came and went, leaving Gee’s Bend “the way it had been / before being discovered.”

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Image copyright Cozbi A. Cabrera, courtesy of Random House Books for Young Readers

In Colors, the girl’s grandma explains the meanings and feelings behind each colored cloth. “Blue cools. / Red is loud and hard to control, / like fire and a gossiping tongue.” Green, orange, yellow, white, pink, and all the others have their own personalities. “Grandma says, / ‘Colors show how you / feel deep down inside.’”

In Pinky, the harrowing facts of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama frame the story of one marcher, Mr. Willie Quill who broke horses for the Alabama State Mounted Patrol and was saved from the Police attacks when one of the horses he’d trained knew his voice. In Dr. King Brings Hope, the little girl adds a “Patch of bright pink / to remember Pinky’s story. / Next to it I sew / a spotless white patch for the hope Dr. Martin Luther King / brought to the Bend” and goes on to tell how her grandma saw Dr. King at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church and what it meant to her.

By and By follows the girl as she adds “golden thank-yous, for James Reeb,” a “bright blue piece of velvet for Viola Liuzzo,” and a “big plaid people circle of white, black, brown, yellow, and red for Reverend Dr. King, all “killed for believing in justice.”

In the 1960s, The Sewing Bee tells, Gee’s Bend quilters were once again discovered. There were buyers for the handmade quilts, but stipulations. The girl asks her grandma if she was part of the Bee, to which she replies, “‘Yes, / more money. Less freedom. I chose to stay free.’”

At last all of the patches are laid out and the time comes to stitch the girl’s quilt. Five women stand at the frame “all stitchin’ and pullin.’” They work “in a slow and steady rhythm” relaxing and enjoying being together until the quilt is finished. In Finished, the last stitch is sewn, and the thread bitten and knotted. The girl has hundreds of ideas for future quilts. “Quilts that are about me, / the place where I live, / and the people / who have been here for generations.”

Further poems unite the history of “Baby Girl,” her family, and neighbors, and an Author’s Note about quilting and the women of Gee’s Bend follow the text.

Patricia McKessack’s free verse poems capture the close relationships and camaraderie of the generations of women who join around the quilting frame to share and pass down their art and their heart. McKessack’s conversational verses, on page after page like the patches of a quilt, reveal the complexity of this handmade art form in the way intimate talks between friends unveil a life. Readers learn not only about the little girl and her own thoughts, but the history and influence of her immediate family, world events, inspirational figures, and deeply held beliefs that make her who she is and ties her to the other Gee’s Bend women.

Cozbi A. Cabrera’s stunning acrylic paintings take readers inside the heart of the Gee’s Bend women, depicting the girl’s home, the table-sized quilting frame where the women collectively work, the plantations, the protests, and the changes that came but did not unravel the convictions, values, and love of the little girl’s family. Readers can almost hear the talking and singing of the Gee’s Bend women as they stitch their quilts, and the comforting, embracing environment is evident on every page. Cabrera’s portraits of the little girl, her mama, and her grandma are particularly moving. For What Changed, Cabrera depicts a yellow school bus appearing on the dirt road from the right hand corner of the page. In the side mirror a dot of a house comes into view, reminding readers that no matter how far these women are from home, Gee’s Bend is always with them.

Children—and adults—will find Stitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt inspirational and uplifting. This volume of poetry can be read at one sitting and delved into again and again, making it a wonderful choice for home libraries and a must for school, public, and other libraries.

Ages 5 – 12

Dragonfly Books, Random House, 2016 (paperback edition) | ISBN 978-0399549502

View a gallery  of fashion designs, dolls, and other handmade art work by Cozbi A. Cabrera on her website!

Creativity Month Activity

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Design a Quilt Coloring Pages

Quilts are so much more than pieces of material sewn together—they’re life stories! Here are two quilt coloring pages for you to design and color. What does each piece mean to you? As you color each section, write a sentence about an event or thought that is important to you.

Quilt Template 1 | Quilt Template 2

Picture Book Review