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

February 6 – It’s Black History Month

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About the Holiday

Black History Month, also known as National African American History Month, celebrates the achievements and contributions of African Americans in United States History. Originally a week-long observance commemorating the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and Frederick Douglass on February 14,  Black History Month was officially established in 1976 by then president Gerald Ford. The holiday is now celebrated across the country with special events and commemorations in schools, churches, and community centers.

I received a copy of A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks from Sterling Children’s Books for review consideration. All opinions are my own. I’m excited to be partnering with Sterling in a giveaway of the book. See details below.

A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks

Written by Alice Faye Duncan | Illustrated by Xia Gordon

 

“SING a song for Gwendolyn Brooks. / Sing it loud—a Chicago blues.” This remarkable biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet opens with these soaring lines which introduce eight-year-old Gwendolyn who, seeing a flower in the midst of the city, wonders how it will grow. Already she was observing the world with insight and originality.  “Her head is filled with snappy rhymes. / She writes her poems in dime store journals.” Even something as “simple” as a clock does not escape Gwendolyn’s consideration. In The Busy Clock she writes, in part: “Clock, clock tell the time, / Tell the time to me. / Magic, patient instrument, / That is never free.”

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Image copyright Xia Gordon, 2019, text copyright Alice Faye Duncan, 2019. Courtesy of Sterling Children’s Books.

Out in the neighborhood, she stands quietly and watches the other kids laughing and playing—girls jumping rope and boys playing basketball. Gwendolyn’s father is a janitor and her mother stays at home with her and her brother, who is also her best friend. Gwen spends her time sitting on her porch, looking and listening to the sounds and the conversations of the neighborhood women and men. The “children call Gwen—‘ol’ stuck-up heifer!’”

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Image copyright Xia Gordon, 2019, text copyright Alice Faye Duncan, 2019. Courtesy of Sterling Children’s Books.

“SING a song for Gwendolyn Brooks. / Her mother believes. / Her father believes. / But sometimes—Gwendolyn doubts her radiance, / When jarring, crashing, discordant words, / Splotch and splatter her notebook paper.” And what does Gwen do with these poems that just don’t work? She buries them under the snowball bush in the backyard. Once, unbelieving, a teacher accuses Gwendolyn of plagiarism. Her mother takes her daughter back to school, and there on the spot, she composes a poetic answer to the charges: Forgive and Forget. It makes Gwen feel proud, she believes in herself and feels the sun shining on her.

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Image copyright Xia Gordon, 2019, text copyright Alice Faye Duncan, 2019. Courtesy of Sterling Children’s Books.

During the Great Depression, when jobs and money are scarce, Gwendolyn’s “parents are wise and see her light.” They give her time to write and she hones her words and her craft through draft after draft. With each completed poem, Gwen’s confidence grows. The Chicago Defender publishes some of Gwendolyn’s poems, and now she has an audience. Her parents believe that one day their daughter will be a famous poet.

Soon, Gwendolyn finds her way to a group of poets who meet in a South Side community center. She studies under Inez Stark and meets Henry Blakely, who will become her husband. She enters her poems in contests and wins first place over and over. When she and Henry move into their own two-room apartment, Henry goes to work, leaving Gwendolyn to translate the neighborhood into poetry that she types “in a crowded corner.”

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Image copyright Xia Gordon, 2019, text copyright Alice Faye Duncan, 2019. Courtesy of Sterling Children’s Books.

Readers swarm to buy her books. “Gwen paints poems with paintbrush words, / And Gwen takes home a Pulitzer Prize.” Henry and their son celebrate, and Gwen’s parents “…cry tears of joy. / They praise her shine.” For they had always known and had “…Planted love and watered it. / Gwendolyn believed. / She found her light. / And— / A furious flower / GREW!”

An extensive Author’s Note detailing more about the life of Gwendolyn Brooks and her work as well as a timeline and suggested readings follow the text.

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Image copyright Xia Gordon, 2019, text copyright Alice Faye Duncan, 2019. Courtesy of Sterling Children’s Books.

With her own sterling verses, Alice Faye Duncan celebrates the life of Gwendolyn Brooks—the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature—taking readers to the Chicago neighborhoods that informed and inspired Brooks’ ideas and the words and rhythms with which she defined them. Along an arc that takes Gwendolyn from a child contemplating the potential of a flower to becoming that blossom herself, Duncan pays tribute to those who recognized Gwen’s genius and helped her fulfill her talent. For readers who themselves may be poets, writers, or other types of artists, Duncan’s beautifully crafted phrases about the artistic process of revision are inspirational and welcome. Standing side-by-side with Duncan’s storytelling are four of Brooks’ poems—The Busy Clock, Forgive and Forget, Ambition, and the children of the poor—Sonnet #2. From cover to cover, Duncan’s book sings with Gwendolyn Brooks’ positivity, confidence, uniqueness, and love for life that made her a unique voice for her time and always.

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From the portrait of Gwendolyn Brooks that graces the title page and throughout the book, Xia Gordon’s distinctive artwork creates a masterpiece of motion and stillness that mirrors Brooks’ penchant for watching and listening to the sounds and sights that filled her mind and ultimately her notebooks. Downy swoops of violets, pinks, browns, and grays provide backdrops to images of Gwendolyn as a young girl and an adult rendered in lines that show her as down to earth but soaring in her thoughts. Her intelligence and spark shine through on every page. Gwendolyn’s parents appear often, always watchful and supportive. Her friends, her husband, her son, and her readers also populate the pages, giving the book an embracing warmth.

A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks is a must for school, classroom, and public library collections, and for children who are discovering their talents and the parents who nurture them, the book would be an inspirational and invaluable addition to home bookshelves.

Ages 4 and up

Sterling Children’s Books, 2019 | ISBN 978-1454930884

Discover more about Alice Faye Duncan and her books on her website.

To learn more about Xia Gordon, her books, and her art, visit her website.

A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks Giveaway

I’m excited to partner with Sterling Children’s Books in this Instagram giveaway of:

  • One (1) copy of A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks written by Alice Faye Duncan | illustrated by Xia Gordon

It takes just these two steps to enter:

A winner will be chosen on February 12.

Giveaway open to US addresses only. | No Giveaway Accounts 

Prizing provided by Sterling Children’s Books.

Black History Month Activity

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My Writing Journal

 

With this easy craft, kids can make a journal that will reflect their personality and inspire them to jot down ideas for poems or stories. 

Supplies

  • Two 9-inch by 6-inch pieces of foam or heavy paper
  • Plain or lined 8½ by 11 paper, as many pieces as you’d like
  • Twine or ribbon
  • Foam letters and objects, stickers, play jewels, or other decorations
  • Small scissor, paper hole puncher, or other instrument to make a hole through the foam and paper

Directions

  1. Fold the plain or lined 8½ by 11 paper in half
  2. Place the paper between the sheets of foam
  3. Make a hole through the foam covers and paper near the top and bottom for the twine to tie the journal together
  4. Slip the twine or ribbon through the holes and tie the journal together
  5. Decorate the cover
  6. Start writing!

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You can find A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks at these booksellers

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

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