Gay Man in the Air: My Journey to Embracing a Special Part of Me
Beacon Press Marches in Boston Pride

Read These Essential Works of Gwendolyn Brooks to Celebrate Her Hundredth Birthday

By Nicholas DiSabatino

Gwendolyn Brooks
Photo credit: Nora Brooks Blakely

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of legendary literary icon Gwendolyn Brooks. I’m so proud to be working on the new biography of her from award-winning poet, playwright, and novelist, Angela Jackson, who intimately knew Brooks and her family and had unprecedented access to her papers. A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks is a welcome introduction to Brooks for both longtime fans and newbies like myself.  

As Donna Seaman of Booklist writes in her review, “Jackson’s sensitive portrait of this ‘quiet genius’ and her finely calibrated insights into her writing celebrate Brooks’s warmth, her ‘bitter bite, her slicing sarcasm,’ and the revolutionary provocation and power of her courageous, caring, intricately faceted poems, poems to read and reread for their emotional, social, and moral repercussions—and for their expounding beauty.”

After reading A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun, I wanted to create a reading guide for those who are new to Gwendolyn Brooks. Here are some essential works to continue on your journey of discovering this amazing poet who became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Brooks’s first book celebrates the characters and landmarks of the African American community of Chicago, and was “life affirming” for them, writes Jackson. Such poems as “Ballad of Pearl May Lee,” “The Mother,” and “Kitchenette Building” appear in this volume.

  • Annie Allen (1950) (No longer in print unfortunately, but available through select sellers online.)

Annie Allen is very much a geography of the mind and heart,” writes Jackson. Brooks’s second volume of poetry, and the one for which she would win the Pulitzer Prize, opens with eleven loosely connected poems about the character of Annie Allen.

Brooks’s only novel, Maud Martha, is devoted to the girlhood, family, courtship, marriage, and motherhood of the title character. “I wanted to give a picture of a girl growing up—a black girl growing up in Chicago,” Brooks wrote of the book.

One of Ms. Brooks’s children’s books, Bronzeville Girls and Boys has an interesting publishing history. Originally released in 1956, the book contained illustrations by Robert Solbert of solely white children, despite being about the black neighborhood of Chicago. Brooks was not pleased, as Jackson cites, “These joyous salutes to the happiness of so much of her childhood were given over to the realm of white children, while her own blackness was neglected and found unworthy to portray in illustrations.” In 2006, HarperCollins released a new version featuring beautiful illustrations by Caldecott-winning illustrator Faith Ringgold celebrating the black children of Chicago. I think Ms. Brooks would be pleased with this new edition.

This volume contains Brooks’s most famous poem, “We Real Cool,” as well as these classics: “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,” “Old Mary,” “The Bean Eaters,” “Strong Men Riding Horses,” and “The Explorer.”

As my favorite poet Sonia Sanchez writes of Brooks, “And how Miss Brooks did this thing called language. How she made us all look down the corridors of our birth. How she wore the rhythm of her name wide on green rivers of change. How she fashioned poems for us all from this bamboo wilderness called America. How she moved from city to city, restringing her words so we could live and breathe and smile and breathe and love and breathe her. This Gwensister called life.”

Brooks cake
Photo credit: Alyssa Hassan


About the Author 

Nicholas DiSabatino graduated from Kent State University and has an MA in Publishing and Writing from Emerson College. He joined Beacon in 2012.