Bird in a Box
Joe Louis, the first African-American world heavyweight champion (from 1937 to 1949), is a faraway and yet pivotal figure in both these novels, each set in the mid-1930s. Both books show the inspiration that young people, in particular young men, can draw from sports and sports heroes, especially when their own lives are difficult.
Andrea Pinkney’s Bird in a Box, although targeted toward younger children, is far less linear. Its chapters take turns between the present-tense viewpoints of three children in upstate New York. Sassy Hibernia, a motherless preacher’s daughter, dreams of being a singer (her mother skipped off to Harlem to do just that); Otis, an orphan at the Mercy Home for Negro Orphans, lost his parents in a car crash and copes with the world via the riddles his father used to ask; and Willie, also at the orphanage, has already seen the end of his own dreams of a boxing career, for his mother’s abusive boyfriend mutilated his hands. This is hardly the set-up for an uplifting and even warmly humorous story, but Pinkney is a gifted writer and no doubt a wise woman. Each child comes alive, each of them finding the hope to believe in a better future – through their friendship, the caring adults in their lives, their own spunk, and their pride in “the Brown Bomber,” Joe Louis.
Both these first-person books bring the mid-1930s into vivid focus through the perspectives of their young protagonists. Both books tell stories in which adults fail children who depend upon them, and in which society fails minorities. Both books also show, however, that there are hidden heroes among us, and that we can aspire to dreams and heroism ourselves. The sprightly Bird in a Box, written for 9- to 12-year-olds, will probably find its fans among children who are already dedicated readers.