Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney

bird-in-a-boxCindy: I have to admit that when Lynn suggested Bird in a Box (Little, Brown 2011) for our blog schedule, I was less than enthusiastic. I’m not a boxing or fight fan of any sort and was not eager to read about the fascination with the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis. But to pass on this book would be to miss out on meeting aspiring jazz singer Hiburnia, riddle-telling Otis and young boxer Willie, whose hands are burned beyond use by his stepfather. Otis and Willie meet at the Mercy Home for Negro Orphans and Otis falls for Hiburnia when he hears her sing for him and his fellow orphans during a charitable visit. The three children take turns narrating the story, perfectly capturing the mood and times of 1936-37. People gathered around “watching” the radio as Joe Louis’ fights are announced, children weaving gum wrappers into paper chains, and the struggle of hard economic times.

The text is interspersed with snippets of  the fight broadcast transcripts but it is also full of beautiful writing, like this metaphor when Hiburnia finally gets the nerve to ask her father if her runaway mother is ever coming back:

My heart is a sand timer, the top filled with hope that’s sifting down slowly.

The hope in this book extends beyond the individual though, as a whole culture pinned their hopes on the broad shoulders of a world champion boxer:

“When Joe Louis fights, it’s more than just throwing punches, Otis. That boy’s fighting for the pride of Negroes. When he loses, every colored man loses a little piece of his own pride.”

Here’s to reading outside the box.

Lynn: My father used to be quite a storyteller and I grew up listening to his tales of life during the Great Depression and WWII.  This book has that same feel for me, rich in the details and impressions of everyday life that lend a sort of you-are-there sense to the story.  Gum wrapper bracelets, embroidered hankies, clothes mended and re-mended, the Sears Roebuck catalog and the glories of the Philco radio.  I was in the first grade when my family got our first TV so I remember the family radio and that sense of magic as we all settled down to listen to a favorite program.  That experience is conveyed so well here and readers feel that intense sense of something important shared.  Pinkney does a wonderful job of blending that sense of time and place into her wonderful story.  Readers easily get the background information they need without ever slowing the accelerating pace that leads to a gripping and satisfying conclusion.

Short chapters are told in first person, alternating between the three narrators in this extremely accessible book.  An author’s note, brief entries about the factual people and events in the story and a list of resources round out the book.  Like Cindy, I wasn’t drawn to the idea of a book featuring boxing but I quickly realized that the book is really about hope – and not to be missed.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

2 Comments on "Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney"

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  1.' Laura W. says:

    I fell in love with Hibernia 🙂 Thinking this would be a great read aloud with all the amazing voices.

  2. Agreed, Laura. In fact I just placed an order for the audio book (Listening Library) thinking it would be fun to hear the radio broadcasts and the story read aloud.–Cindy

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