I was initially attracted to Gwendolyn Brooks’ collection of poems, Bronzeville Boys and Girls, because I enjoy the author’s work for adult audiences. I was not disappointed. Originally published in 1956, when depictions of African Americans in children’s literature were even more dismal than they are now, Brooks managed to create an assortment of poems that represent children and childhood complexly and with dignity and humor. She carefully walks the line between representing relatable emotions and experiences and refusing to abandon the specificity of the urban black community represented.
Each of the thirty-six poems included in the collection are paired with corresponding illustrations by the award-winning and prolific artist Faith Ringgold. Ringgold uses bold colors to depict settings that are part whimsy, part real. For instance, the poem “Mexie and Bridie” is about a commonplace event; two women enjoy tea. But, the familiar is rendered just strange enough to prompt wide eyes and giggles – this is a tea party in the trees.
Other poems gently but provocatively critique the distance between the worlds of adults and children. “Val” begins: “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.” The corresponding illustration depicts a well-dressed man standing in front of the door to a house, and a child, Val, driving away on a bike, banished from the grown-ups’ gathering. Brooks’ use of language is descriptive and age appropriate. Of course, frosting is the best part of the cake, and like cake, laughter just isn’t the same without it.
Other poems are simply sweet. “Andre” is about a boy who dreams he must pick his own parents. He is overwhelmed until he realizes he already has the best ones. In Ringgold’s image, Andre rests comfortably underneath a checkered blanket, his parents sit contentedly on a small sofa.
Not all poems are so cheery. “John, Who is Poor” is about a little boy “Whose Mama must hurry to toil all day./ Whose father is dead and done.” The corresponding image shows a boy looking out from a curtain and a woman walking away from the home, presumably heading to work. Whereas most of the children live in single family homes, John lives in a walk-up. “Otto” also deals with issues of poverty and complicates the notion of universal childhood unmarked by class and race. The poem is about a boy who did not receive the gifts he wanted for Christmas. He demonstrates maturity and does not blame Santa Claus, but instead recognizes that his father could not afford what he wanted: “To frown or fret would not be fair./ My dad must never know I care./ It’s hard enough for him to bear.” Otis is protective of his father’s feelings, which complicates dominant depictions of adult/child relationships.
Race and class are subtly engaged in “Eldora, Who is Rich,” a poem about a new girl moving into a big house next to a far more modest one. A two-page image corresponds with the poem. On the left-side of the spread, three children stand behind a picket fence and in front of a darkly painted house. On the facing page, a prettily dressed girl with warm brown skin stands in front of a very large red house holding a doll in her outstretched arms. The poem reads: “‘A RICH girl moved in there’, they said./ And thought to find a golden head,/ Almost, with diamond ears and eyes!” The children imagine that a blond white girl most likely moved into the big house next store and are delighted to find she was “Like any other child.” Not only does Brooks reference complicated relationships between race and class, she carefully troubles dominant images of the universal child as a white child by suggesting that the girl who emerges is “Like any other child” because she is black.
I recommend this book for any personal library because it will remain engaging for many years. Young children with short attention spans can listen to a handful of poems at a time and enjoy the gorgeous images that help bring them to life for the reader, whereas older children can be encouraged to talk about issues of race, class, and gender, along with growing up, moving, and feeling alone.