Mem­phis au­thor’s picture book pays trib­ute to Gwen­dolyn Brooks

The Commercial Appeal - - Business - Julie Daniel­son | CHAPTER16.ORG

In her new­est picture book, “A Song for Gwen­dolyn Brooks,” Mem­phis chil­dren’s au­thor and school li­brar­ian Al­ice Faye Dun­can pays trib­ute to cel­e­brated poet Gwen­dolyn Brooks, the first African-amer­i­can to win a Pulitzer Prize for lit­er­a­ture and the 29th poet lau­re­ate of the United States.

In an orig­i­nal, nine-part free-verse poem, with il­lus­tra­tions by Brook­lyn artist Xia Gor­don, Dun­can asks read­ers to “sing a song for Gwen­dolyn Brooks.” She frames the story with Brooks as a metaphor­i­cal flower, strug­gling to grow but even­tu­ally find­ing the sun­light of con­fi­dence. Ob­ser­vant read­ers will spot lines from one of Brooks’ po­ems on the ti­tle-page spread: “The time cracks into fu­ri­ous flower. Lifts its face all unashamed.”

“A Song for Gwen­dolyn Brooks” moves from this first ap­pear­ance of young Gwen­dolyn, age 8, as she pon­ders a dy­ing flower, to the fi­nal spread in which her par­ents cel­e­brate her Pulitzer Prize: “They praise her shine,” Dun­can writes. “They saw it first.”

She takes read­ers through Brooks’ child­hood in Chicago’s South Side (her head “filled with snappy rhymes”), em­pha­siz­ing the poet’s nat­u­ral in­tro­ver­sion and soli­tude on the school play­ground. In­stead of join­ing in, Gwen­dolyn merely ob­serves, though al­ways with a well-worn note­book in hand. Her par­ents even al­low her to aban­don her chores, giv­ing her more free time for writ­ing.

Nev­er­the­less, the fu­ture Pulitzer­win­ner struggles to be­lieve in her­self — she “doubts her ra­di­ance,” as Dun­can de­scribes it — and even buries in her back yard the po­ems she deems inad­e­quate. When an ele­men­tary-school teacher ac­cuses her of pla­gia­riz­ing, she com­poses a poem on the spot. The poem, “For­give and For­get,” is reprinted in its en­tirety in “A Song for Gwen­dolyn Brooks.” Three of Brooks’ other po­ems are in­cor­po­rated into the text as well.

With vivid fig­u­ra­tive lan­guage — “She is feath­ery voice and flick­er­ing flame” and “Her words are psalms from a South Side Street” — Dun­can also shines a light on Brooks’ cre­ative process, the craft­ing of po­etry it­self. One spread at the book’s mid­way point is de­voted to the work in­volved in go­ing from a shoddy first draft to a pol­ished fi­nal one. This em­pha­sis on re­vi­sion is some­thing to which young stu­dents can re­late and makes this an es­pe­cially invit­ing bi­og­ra­phy to share in a lan­guage arts or cre­ative writ­ing class­room.

With her par­ents’ con­tin­ued sup­port (“This girl we got is a gifted child,” her father tells her mother), Gwen­dolyn

‘A Song for Gwen­dolyn Brooks’

By Al­ice Faye Dun­can; il­lus­trated by Xia Gor­don. Ster­ling. 48 pages. $16.95. be­friends fel­low African-amer­i­can poets, learns more about her craft and repeatedly wins first place in mag­a­zine po­etry con­tests. After col­lege grad­u­a­tion, mar­riage and the birth of her son — the story’s pac­ing picks up con­sid­er­ably here — she con­tin­ues writ­ing, delet­ing and re­vis­ing. “She whit­tles her son­nets with per­fect grace,” Dun­can writes, and she ul­ti­mately wins the Pulitzer Prize.

Via un­clut­tered com­po­si­tions and un­adorned back­grounds, Gor­don, who makes her picture-book de­but here, em­pha­sizes the emo­tions of Brooks’ child­hood. Faces are drawn sim­ply — in the il­lus­tra­tion de­pict­ing her col­lege grad­u­a­tion, Brooks’ proud, con­tem­pla­tive face is the only one with fea­tures; her white class­mates are shown face­less.

Dun­can’s telling of this story is a rev­er­ent in­tro­duc­tion to Brooks’ life, a book that cap­tures the poet’s essence. A time­line, list of sug­gested books and a bib­li­og­ra­phy fol­low the story, ex­pand­ing on Brooks’ ac­com­plish­ments and her abun­dant tal­ent for read­ers who crave more in­for­ma­tion. Young writ­ers ea­ger to bloom as poets them­selves will find par­tic­u­lar in­spi­ra­tion here.

For more lo­cal book cov­er­age, please visit, an on­line pub­li­ca­tion of Hu­man­i­ties Ten­nessee.


Al­ice Faye Dun­can

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