Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks

Book review by
Mandie Caroll, Common Sense Media
Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks Book Poster Image
Splendid biography of first Black Pulitzer Prize winner.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Biography covers famous poet's life from childhood to adulthood. Shows Brooks' inspiration to start writing poetry (family), how process of writing, editing, publishing, and making a life as a poet worked for her. Back matter includes timeline, source list, and bibliography that fill in details about Brooks' life, publications, awards, and honors.

Positive Messages

Don't give up on the thing(s) you love to do. Don't let rejection, setbacks, or failures make you doubt yourself; learn from them and keep at it. You must believe in yourself and your ability to reach your goals. Dream big for yourself, work hard, keep hope.

Positive Role Models

Gwendolyn is an incredibly dedicated poet from very early in life. She has an innate confidence that isn't dampened by loneliness, poverty, or the racism she faces; she perseveres no matter what. She pours it all into her poems, and as she ages, becomes a master of her art. Gwendolyn and her family are dark-skinned African Americans. Black people of various skin tones populate the story. One spread features paper dolls that have White skin.

Violence & Scariness

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, by Suzanne Slade and illustrated by award winner Cozbi A. Cabrera, is a picture book about the first Black person to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. That was in 1950. Before that prize, though, young Gwendolyn has a fine beginning, being fed poetry by her father and encouraged by her mother. Through the Great Depression, a lonely adolescence, marriage, and kids, through being so poor her electricity got shut off, Brooks wrote, even if she had to light a candle to do so. Issues of gender, race, and class are woven gently throughout the book. Adults are encouraged to further explore with young readers how identity shaped and affected Brooks' life as a poet. Soothing blues and pinks are the backdrop for most of the thoughtfully detailed, lively illustrations, which reflect the buoyant, occasionally rhyming free verse. The sophisticated text is better suited to older children, but it's musical enough that younger children won't be bored. This biography is sure to inspire hope and determination in young readers with big dreams.

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What's the story?

In EXQUISITE: THE POETRY AND LIFE OF GWENDOLYN BROOKS, we meet young Gwendolyn as her beloved father recites the poetry of Black writers to her every night. By age 7, Gwendolyn is writing her own poems. At 11, a local paper publishes some of her poems. Then another poem of hers is printed in a national magazine. Then the Great Depression hits, and poverty and hunger with it. Rejections, too. For a long time, no one wants to publish Brooks' poems. But she keeps writing. Brooks draws on her belief in an "ecstatically exquisite" future to persevere. One small success leads to another and another until, finally, in 1950, she wins the biggest prize for poetry in all the world: the Pulitzer. And what does she do? She keeps writing. Back matter provides context with an informative author's note, timeline, and bibliography.

Is it any good?

This book is a delightful and inspiring account of the life of poet Gwendolyn Brooks. The story doesn't ignore her circumstances -- she's Black, poor, a woman, a mother, a poet subject to pre-civil-rights-era racism -- and it doesn't make her life a story of pulling herself up by her bootstraps, either. Brooks is simply and extraordinarily a Black woman, mother, wife, and so on, who cannot stop writing when there are stories to be told. Cabrera's acrylic illustrations are a visual feast. Thoughtful details add incredible depth, like the pink foam roller that wraps young Gwendolyn's bangs in one of the opening spreads to the baby son she holds as she looks out onto a busy street in Bronzeville. She seems to be collecting images, sounds, colors, and people to write about later, when she can take a break from mothering. The synergy between the free-verse text and the pictures makes for an intensely satisfying read. Young artists and writers can take heart from Brooks' determined example in this worthy biography.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the challenges and triumphs shown in Exquisite. How did Brooks overcome her challenges? Why do you think she was able to keep writing, even when no one wanted to publish her poems? What was her most important triumph? Why?

  • Talk about the character strengths Brooks showed throughout her life. How did curiosity and perseverance help her grow as a poet?

  • What do the illustrations tell you about Brooks' life? How do they support or reflect the text? Are there any details that really jumped out at you?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love poetry and Black history

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