She was born in Topeka, Kansas, but when she was six weeks old, her family moved to Chicago where she grew up. Although Gwendolyn Brooks also wrote a novel (Maud Martha, 1953) an autobiography and some other prose works, she was noted primarily as a poet. Her 1949 book of poetry, Annie Allen, received a Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first won by an African American. In 1968, she was made Poet Laureate of Illinois. Brooks was awarded more than 75 honorary degrees from colleges and universities worldwide.

Her poetry is rooted in the poor and mostly African American South Side of Chicago. She initially published her poetry as a columnist for the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper. Although her poems range in style from traditional ballads and sonnets to using blues rhythms in free verse, her characters are often drawn from the poor inner city.

Brooks' view of the art of poetry stated that to create "bigness" you don't have to create an epic. "Bigness," said Brooks "can be found in a little haiku, five syllables, seven syllables."

Gwendolyn Brooks