Poetry Month Kid Lit Review of “Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks” by Suzanne Slade

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, growing up to become the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. As the Poetry Foundation observes, “Gwendolyn Brooks is one of the most highly regarded, influential, and widely read poets of 20th-century American poetry. She was a much-honored poet, even in her lifetime . . . .”

The author of this book for readers aged 6 and up reports that young Gwendolyn received a great deal of support from her parents, who had a bookcase filled with poems in their home. Each night, her father read some poems aloud, and Gwendolyn memorized them. When she was seven, Gwendolyn began writing poems of her own. Her mother praised her, saying, “You are going to be the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar.” Dunbar, also a Black poet, was Gwendolyn’s favorite.

Writing became a part of Gwendolyn:

“ . . . It was something she just had to do. She carefully strung words together like elegant jewels in perfect meter and time.”

At age eleven, she mailed four of her poems to a newspaper and magazine. They were published, but then the Great Depression began. Money for the arts dried up, and for a while, all of her poems were rejected. Gwendolyn went to college, still reading and writing poetry, while working at menial jobs to support herself. She married another poet, and continued honing her craft. Eventually, her poems won contests and began to appear in print. She kept dreaming, the author writes, and collected her work into a book which she sent to a book publisher in New York. The publisher loved it, even asking for more poems, and the book eventually became A Street in Bronzeville.. A second book followed, Annie Allen, for which she won the greatest prize in poetry: the Pulitzer.

An Author’s Note tells readers that Gwendolyn Brooks went on to write fourteen more books. In her later years, she taught writing classes and sponsored contests to help inspire young poets. There is also a timeline, list of sources, and bibliography.

Illustrator Cozbi A. Cabrera used acrylics to create expressive pictures showing the aspects of Gwendolyn’s life depicted by the text.

You can read some of Brooks’ poems here.

Evaluation: Like other books about persistent girls with dreams who let nothing stand in their way, this one could well have been titled: “Nothing Stopped Gwendolyn!” Young readers will find encouragement and inspiration in her story.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2020

Gwendolyn Brooks, age 32

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Review of “Return of the Thief” by Megan Whalen Turner

This is the sixth and final book in the Queen’s Thief fantasy series, which the author has produced over a twenty-four-year time span. I read the first five books some years ago, and wish I had waited to read them all together. After I read the first though, I was hooked, and kept on reading them. In any event, now readers of the previous books have a great reason to start the series all over again.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what made me love these books so much, especially because I tended to get a bit confused by all the byzantine plotting of those wrangling for power in the stories. But one can’t help, I think, falling in love with the main characters in the series, especially Eugenides – called Gen – “the Thief” and now King of Attolia.

Each book has a different narrator – in this case it is Pheris, the heir to Baron Erondites, one of Gen’s enemies. Pheris was born speechless and physically disabled, but not mentally impaired, as so many immediately assumed (but never Gen). Erondites agreed to let his heir be raised in the palace – not disclosing Pheris’s birth defects – thinking he pulled one over Gen. More than that, Erondites hoped Gen would have Pheris killed, so that he could pass the older boy’s inheritance to Pheris’s younger and more seemingly “normal” brother. Erondites was aware that Gen could be ruthless, but was less cognizant that Gen was also compassionate and smarter than he let on (in a nice parallel to the tendency of Pheris to play the role of the “idiot” so he could move around with more impunity). Gen sees behind Pheris’s physical disabilities, and sets about educating and training him to realize his capabilities.

In this book there is also a power struggle among the nations surrounding Attolia and a war to resolve it. It makes up a great deal of the action but in the main serves as a device to highlight the natures of, and interactions between, all involved. When Gen comments on the war, for example, we also see how he regards power dynamics generally: “‘Oh yes, of course,’ said Eugenides bitterly. ‘If you have the might to do it, you have the right to do it. The most important rule of all.’”

In addition, we learn more about the marriage of Gen and Irene, the Queen of Attolia. This is not an idealized relationship like those so common in fantasy novels, but rather a mature and realistic partnership with all the ups and downs you find in real life. It is also marked by respect and care that is deeply touching, even though rarely explicitly articulated.

The supernatural elements of the story, i.e., the occasional influence of the gods, are also very well done, with subtlety and surprise. Unlike stories about the Greek gods, these gods make clear that human intention will play a large role in human fate; the gods may set something in motion, but the rest is up to the players.

Evaluation: This is an excellent book that caps off an outstanding series. If you have not started it, you are in for a treat, for you may now read them all at once and in order. (The first of the series is The Thief.) The author has gotten many prizes for her books, and they are well deserved.

Rating: 4/5 [Given my memory deficits, I rated it as a standalone, and I did indeed forget a lot that was not fully recapitulated by the author.]

Published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2020

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Kid Lit Review of “The Passover Guest” by Susan Kusel

This picture book for children ages 4 and older retells the famous I.L. Peretz story, “The Magician,” originally written in Yiddish and illustrated by Marc Chagall, the most famous Jewish painter of the 20th century.

Peretz’s story riffed on Jewish folklore tales about Elijah the Prophet, whose appearance is hoped for during the Passover Seder, the ritual meal commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. At the seder, a chair is always left empty for Elijah, a special cup of wine is poured at the place set for him, and when possible, the front door is left open to facilitate his arrival.

In Jewish tradition, Elijah has had a number of roles making him a most welcome Passover guest, including the herald of the Messiah, miracle worker, healer, and promoter of social justice and welfare.

This current book is set in Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1933 during the Great Depression. It recounts what happened to Muriel, a young girl who was not looking forward to the Passover Seder celebration because her family was too poor to have one.

In spite of having next to nothing, Muriel gave her last penny to a magician seeking donations who entertained her on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He advised her to hurry home so she didn’t miss her seder.

Miriam was somewhat disbelieving that her family would be having a seder, yet the man was – after all – a worker in magic, and he sounded so confident! She hurried home past the beautiful monuments and memorials, back to her apartment. When she opened the door, however, there was only an empty table.

Then she and her parents heard a knock at the door, and a mysterious stranger asked to join them for their seder. Muriel’s father said, “You are welcome to share anything we have, but this year, we have nothing.” The man responded, “I have everything we need.”

Suddenly the room was no longer shabby and the table was overflowing with food. Muriel ran to get the rabbi and ask if they could proceed with the astonishing meal. He and his curious guests followed Muriel back home. The stranger was gone but the cornucopia of food was still there, and they all celebrated together. By the empty cup set out for Elijah, there sat the penny Muriel had given the magician.

The author and illustrator both add notes after the end of the story, and there is also an explanation of the Passover holiday.

Illustrator Sean Rubin reports that he wanted his work to harken back to Chagall’s approach to art, reflecting aspects of Chagall’s typical palette, as well as his unique arrangements of color, lighting, and surrealist images. Rubin has chosen to idenity the time of year for readers by the beautiful profusion of cherry blossoms, and enhances the narrative’s suggestion of community cohesion by his street scenes in the Jewish neighborhood that evoke the close-knit shtetl, albeit updated. (Shtetls were small Jewish villages that existed in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.) In addition, Muriel’s red hat – always causing her to stand out in every scene – reminded me of the little girl in the red coat in “Schindler’s List.” The red coat is said to have represented hope, innocence, and the continuation of Jewish life and tradition, and I think the same could be said of Muriel in her red hat.

Evaluation: This book is not an ordinary picture book, in the sense that it is actually a “page turner” – readers will be champing at the bit to find out what happens after Muriel hurries home. I also loved the way that an old Yiddish folktale was retold rather faithfully in spite of the new world setting.

The book features an excellent message that is not explicitly articulated, but doesn’t need to be: small acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion are not only “mitzvahs” (or good deeds) in and of themselves. Occasionally, they can even yield repayment in ways you could never have imagined. It could take the form of tangible rewards, but regardless there will be the intangible but more lasting benefits of making you a better person and the world a better place.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Neal Porter Books, an imprint of Holiday House, 2021

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Review of “Georgana’s Secret” by Arlem Hawks

This Regency romance is endearingly adorable. Regency romances are so fun because they take place during a very small and somewhat bizarre period in history when so-called Mad King George III was deemed incapable of ruling the United Kingdom. His son and heir served as Regent in his place. Though the Napoleonic Wars with France were on everyone’s mind, even more important was a preoccupation among the privileged with high society, especially among those who aspired to the “bon ton” – French for “in the fashionable mode” – a tone set by the profligate Regent. There were a plethora of rules about how young men and ladies could behave, dress, and interact.

Georgana Woodall, 18, is flouting all the rules: in order to get away from her abusive grandmother, she disguised herself as a male named “George” and joined her father, a navy captain, on his ship as his cabin boy. She can’t hide her lack of toughness though, and the other boys on the ship harass her. First Lieutenant Dominic Peyton, compassionate and handsome (needless to add), is determined to mentor George to help him survive and gain the respect of the other boys.

Alas, Dominic is strangely drawn to George, and George can’t help but fall for Dominic.

It’s not at all as predictable as it sounds however; there are some surprising twists in store for readers, leading up to the delightful denouement.

Evaluation: I raced through this book; I loved the wonderful characters, warts and all, and watching them and their interrelationships evolve throughout the story.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Shadow Mountain, 2021

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Review of “We Begin at the End” by Chris Whitaker

This writer reminded me a lot of John Hart, with his coming-of-age books about families that get broken after a tragic event, and then deal with questions of revenge, justice, and the mournful seeking of redemption.

Set in a small coastal town in California, the story begins as Walk, 15, discovers the body of seven-year-old Sissy Radley. It then moves forward thirty years, when Vincent King is about to be released from prison for Sissy’s death. Walk, now Chief of Cape Haven Police, goes to pick Vincent up from prison. Walk still considers Vincent his best friend, and repeatedly tried to reach out to him when he was in prison. But Vincent is a broken man who doesn’t want help; doesn’t want “saving.” But Walk, he can’t help but try.

Over the years, Walk has looked out for Star Radley, Sissy’s big sister and a friend of Walk’s from the days when they would double date – Walk and Martha May, and Vincent and Star. These days, Star is often out late at bars, drinking and picking up men, and Walk tries to do what he can for her illegitimate children: 13-year-old Duchess and 6-year-old Robin. It falls to Duchess to mother Robin, and she does so devotedly, in spite of her resentment over it.

Duchess is hard, old before her time, and all but consumed by her anger. She copes by imagining herself to be an outlaw, as was apparently one of her distant ancestors, and that fantasy makes her brave as well as aggressive and confrontational. She acts out against anyone trying to help, but the people who know her can’t help but see her pain, and they are patient, absorbing her blows.

Vincent’s return shakes everything up, and a new tragedy rips everyone apart again.

Discussion: The story explores larger themes, such as when revenge is justified and when it is counter-productive; what would lead even the best of us compromise our values; and the fluid ways in which family can be defined. When is the path to forgiveness just too strewn with obstacles? What will it take, after the worst of circumstances, to start down the road to redemption?

Evaluation: This gritty story is not only a murder mystery, but also very much a coming of age book highlighting the bonds of family and friendship. There is a great deal of sadness, injustice, and the tragedy of wretched circumstances, but there is also eventually a measure of redemption, at least for some of the characters. To get there, however, the reader must navigate an impressive labyrinth of plot twists and turns as the story resolves.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Henry Holt, 2020

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