RESEARCHING THE REMARKABLE GWENDOLYN BROOKS by Suzanne Slade
As a Chicagoan, I find it especially rewarding to write about Chicago’s own remarkable residents. And certainly one of the most remarkable is Gwendolyn Brooks, who among her many accolades was the first Black person to win a Pulitzer Prize.
I’m thrilled that the Nerdy Book Club is sharing the cover reveal of my upcoming picture book, EXQUISITE: THE POETRY AND LIFE OF GWENDOLYN BROOKS (Abrams, April 2020), illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera.
I’ve been an admirer of Brooks’ magnificent works since middle school. So in 2013 when the University of Illinois announced they’d acquired Ms. Brooks literary archives, and her handwritten poetry journals would be available to the public, this research opportunity sparked a new picture book project about this phenomenal poet.
At first, I immersed myself in Gwendolyn’s glorious poetry. Then I read and reread her autobiographies, Report from Part One and Report from Part Two, checked out biographies by other authors, and studied several interviews of Ms. Brooks in books and magazines. But one quote from Gwendolyn about her childhood dreams, which I discovered in a 1968 Ebony magazine interview, provided the direction for the story:
“I was at my happiest, sitting out on the back porch, to sit there and look out at the western sky with all those beautiful changing clouds and just to dream about the future, which was going to be ecstatically exquisite, like those clouds.”
Gwendolyn’s own words supplied the book title, EXQUISITE (so perfect to describe her poetry and life), and also the book theme, clouds.
With those in place, I began writing. After several months, I’d finished a first draft. Then I felt ready to visit the Gwendolyn Brooks Papers collection at the University of Illinois. In June 2014 I called to inquire about a research visit, but the curator responded they were “processing the collection.” I would have to wait. So I worked on a second draft, and third, and so on.
Months later, I contacted the University again, but the collection still wasn’t ready. More research. More revisions.
In October 2015 I was finally granted permission to visit the Gwendolyn Brooks Papers in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois.
When I arrived, the curator offered me six of Gwendolyn’s handwritten poetry notebooks. I was allowed to review one at a time in a special room. The curator asked if there was a particular poem I hoped to find. Though I was excited to read whatever precious poems the notebooks contained, I explained I’d love to find one about clouds to go with the book theme. (I’d already searched Gwendolyn’s published works and hadn’t found any about clouds.) I eagerly looked over the six notebooks and selected one with her earlier works. I carefully opened the front cover and the poem on that very first page was titled “Clouds.” (Cue goosebumps.)
The curator and I couldn’t believe it!
I’ve never put much stock in fate—but this sure felt like it. Thanks to Brooks Permissions, Gwendolyn’s wonderful unpublished poem, Clouds, appears in print for the first time in EXQUISITE. I can’t wait for young readers to discover it!
As I continued working on the book, there were other exciting research surprises. At the Midland Author’s annual awards banquet in 2017, I had the great fortune to meet Tyehimba Jess, who had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his incredible work, OLIO. Among other memories, Tyehimba shared that he’d won one of the poetry contests Gwendolyn had sponsored in Chicago, which illustrates how she inspired and encouraged many young poets, and how her contributions to poetry extend beyond her own work.
In 2018 I spoke at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., and had a chance encounter with Tyler Meier, Exec. Director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center. When I told him about my Brooks book project, he shared stories and photos from Gwendolyn’s appearance at the Tucson Poetry Festival.
Of course, the magnificent illustrator for EXQUISITE, Cozbi A. Cabrera (who also hails from Chicago), went on her own journey of research and discovery, which involved a visit to the Gwendolyn Brooks Papers collection and much, much more.
Using bold, bright colors, Cozbi’s stunning illustrations are truly inspiring, just like Gwendolyn’s story. Her rich illustrations are also filled with interesting, accurate details. For example, in the spread where Gwendolyn celebrates her eleventh birthday, there are twelve candles on her cake to reflect the African American tradition of including an extra candle for good luck.
In the book Acknowledgments, Cozbi shares such beautiful truths about Gwendolyn, that I wanted to end the post with her heartfelt words—
“Doing the research for the illustrations illuminated just how Gwendolyn Brooks overshadowed and transcended lack, limitation, oppression, and every established boundary line with the power of her discipline and the persistence of her love. Thank you, Gwendolyn Brooks. You speak still.”
Suzanne Slade is the award-winning author of more than 130 books for children. Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks releases April 7, 2020 (just in time to celebrate National Poetry Month) from Abrams. More of Slade’s books highlighting Chicago heroes include, Dangerous Jane, (2017, Peachtree) the story of Chicago’s own Jane Addams, Hull-House founder and first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and Swish! The Slam-Dunking, Alley-Ooping, High-Flying Harlem Globetrotters (Fall 2020, Little, Brown). (Surprise, the original team was from Chicago!) You can find her online at www.suzanneslade.com or on Twitter @AuthorSSlade.