Gwendolyn Brooks’s Trailblazing Vintage Poems for Kids, Celebrating Diversity and the Universal Spirit of Childhood
A playful and poignant bow before the singular validity of childhood.
By Maria Popova
In 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks (June 7, 1917–December 2, 2000) became the first black woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She was only thirty-three. Five years earlier, she had made her debut to great acclaim with the collection A Street in Bronzeville — a series of poetic portraits of people and life in her Chicago neighborhood, which earned her a Guggenheim Fellowship.
In 1956, Brooks released Bronzeville Boys and Girls (public library) — a wonderful collection of poems for and about children, illustrated by painter, sculptor, and prolific children’s book artist Ronni Solbert, a Fulbright fellow who had studied folk and tribal art in India.
Considering that even today only 3% of children’s books feature characters of color, the collection was a revolutionary act of creative courage in its era, a decade before the peak of the civil rights movement. It granted a generation of children the tremendous gift of being seen, of having the validity of their experience mirrored back by the page, of being assured that they belong in literature and art.
It’s hardly surprising that the book was carried on the wings of encouragement by legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom — a patron saint of childhood who fought censorship fiercely, cultivated young Maurice Sendak’s genius, and stood up for the creative integrity of her authors in the face of commercial cowardice on behalf of publishers and booksellers. In 1955, Brooks submitted twenty-five children’s poems to Nordstrom, who replied with one of her characteristically warm and wise notes of encouragement, requesting more. Vitalized by the opportunity, Brooks put herself on a rigorous writing regimen, writing a poem a day for fifteen days. Of the forty final poems, Nordstrom selected the thirty-four that became Bronzeville Boys and Girls, published the following year.
Although the poems are inspired by Brooks’s neighborhood, they emanate the universal spirit of childhood with its enormous kaleidoscope of capacities for joy and sorrow, courage and vulnerability, loneliness and connection, darkness and light, and most of all immense imaginative freedom.
Each of the poems is titled after a child, and the children’s names bear a certain nobility, a delightful datedness, a literary quality evocative of Victorian royalty and Greek mythology — a choice reflecting the singular dignity that Brooks confers upon childhood.
When grown-ups at parties are laughing,
I do not like the sound.
It doesn’t have any frosting.
It doesn’t go up from the ground.
So when my Daddy chased me
Away from the bend in the stair,
With a “Get about your business!”
I didn’t really care.
I’d rather be in the basement.
I’d rather be outside.
I’d rather get my bicycle
When I hear Marian Anderson sing,
I am a STUFFless kind of thing.
Heart is like the flying air.
I cannot find it anywhere.
Fingers tingle. I am cold
And warm and young and very old.
But, most, I am a STUFFless thing
When I hear Marian Anderson sing.
CYNTHIA IN THE SNOW
The loudness in the road.
And laughs away from me.
It laughs a lovely whiteness,
And whitely whirs away,
Still white as milk or shirts.
So beautiful it hurts.
Some of the girls are playing jacks.
Some are playing ball.
But small Narcissa is not playing
Anything at all.
Small Narcissa sits upon
A brick in her back yard
And looks at tiger-lilies,
And shakes her pigtails hard.
First she is an ancient queen
In pomp and purple veil.
Soon she is a singing wind.
And, next, a nightingale.
How fine to be Narcissa,
A-changing like all that!
While sitting still, as still, as still
As anyone ever sat!
ELDORA, WHO IS RICH
“A RICH girl moved in there,” they said.
And thought to find a golden head,
Almost, with diamond ears and eyes!
But soon there came a nice surprise.
They saw a child run out to see
Themselves. She yelled, “Please play with me!”
And brought her doll, and skipped, and smiled,
Like any other little child.
Many of the poems touch on the perplexities of the self that reach beyond childhood and into the lifelong tempest of being human, from the puzzling continuity of personal identity to the ceaseless dance of time and transformation:
ROBERT, WHO IS OFTEN A STRANGER TO HIMSELF
Do you ever look in the looking-glass
And see a stranger there?
A child you know and do not know,
Wearing what you wear?
Sick-times, you go inside yourself,
And scarce can come away.
You sit and look outside yourself
At people passing by.
That clock is ticking
The me that only
Ate peanuts, jam and
Is gone already.
And this is
‘Cause nothing’s putting
Back, each day,
The me that clock is
Bronzeville Boys and Girls, dedicated to Brooks’s own daughter and son, is a fine addition to other little-known and often forgotten children’s books by celebrated authors of literature for “grownups,” including Sylvia Plath’s The Bed Book, Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, Anne Sexton’s Joey and the Birthday Present, Carson McCullers’s Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig, Maya Angelou’s Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, James Joyce’s The Cats of Copenhagen, Aldous Huxley’s The Crows of Pearblossom, Gertrude Stein’s To Do, Virginia Woolf’s Nurse Lugton’s Curtain, Ted Hughes’s The Iron Giant, and Donald Barthelme’s The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine.
Published January 5, 2016