The best picture book biographies to inspire young poets

The Books I Picked & Why

Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks

By Suzanne Slade, Cozbi A. Cabrera

Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks

Why this book?

Like many authors, my most-asked question is “Where do you get your ideas?” Gwendolyn Brooks had the perfect answer: “Poetry comes out of life.” Brooks, the first Black person to win a Pulitzer Prize, grew up with parents who prized poetry. She began writing at age 7, published at 11, and kept writing about life—its tough times and its beauty—as she worked to make her words shine. That theme, that poetry can sustain and inspire, even through hardships, runs throughout this biography.

As Slade tells it, one day in 1950, Brooks, struggling to pay her bills--her electricity had been turned off--receives a call announcing that she had won poetry’s greatest honor. This bio will leave children amazed that it’s true and inspired to learn more.


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Imagine

By Juan Felipe Herrera, Lauren Castillo

Imagine

Why this book?

I love books in which children can imagine themselves in the story. This gorgeous book, with its perfect match of gentle text and engaging illustrations, asks readers to imagine a child picking flowers, playing in a stream, moving with his migrant worker family, learning how to speak English, and beginning to write. As the child grows and changes, readers will delight in discovering that the narrator is actually Herrera, a U.S. poet laureate, writing about his own path to finding his voice and becoming a poet. Herrera points to his own journey as a way for children to imagine the wonderful possibilities that lie ahead of them. 


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Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton

By Don Tate

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton

Why this book?

I’m hooked when authors get to the heart of how someone finds their passion. That’s what Don Tate does as he spins the tale of how an enslaved boy, forbidden to learn to read and write, became a sought-after poet. Children will cheer for George as he teaches himself to read and becomes a published poet. They will hold their breath as George returns to his enslaver, and they will share his joy at his eventual freedom. Tate’s storytelling — this picture book biography brilliantly encompasses the hope, tension, and satisfaction of a story — shows that George’s physical bondage could not imprison his dreams. Through George’s fascinating story, children surely will be inspired to follow their own dreams.



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Emily Writes: Emily Dickinson and Her Poetic Beginnings

By Jane Yolen, Christine Davenier

Emily Writes: Emily Dickinson and Her Poetic Beginnings

Why this book?

What experiences might children have that inspire them to write poetry? Author Yolen brings readers into the Dickinson home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where young Emily scribbles on scraps of paper in her father’s study. Emily reads her three-word poem to her parents, to the flowers in the garden, and to Mrs. Mack, who provides encouragement that’s as warm and appreciated as the desserts they share. Just as Emily takes time to ponder what is the essence of a poem, this imagined story unfolds at an unhurried pace. That pace, combined with the engaging illustrations, permits readers to linger on small moments and let their own imaginations wander. Poetry takes time, just as growing up does.


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Langston's Train Ride

By Robert Burleigh, Leonard Jenkins

Langston's Train Ride

Why this book?

If you doubt poetry’s power to sweep you up and bring you to tears, you must read Burleigh’s deep dive into Langston Hughes’ inspiration for his famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. You’ll take this story to heart and keep it there. I got the chills from the author’s note, which explains that Burleigh’s goal was to explore “the moment when Langston Hughes came to believe in himself as a writer” – and have that moment inspire others. In vibrant, poetic prose perfect for reading aloud, Burleigh begins with Hughes celebrating his first book.

In a flashback, Hughes, on a train, muses over his personal history. As the train crosses the Mississippi, he reaches further back into his people’s history, until he entwines those strands into one gorgeous, resonant work of art.


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