Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #37)

Bird in A Box
Author: Andrea Davis Pinkney
Pages: 278
Age Range: 8+
Published: 2011
Genre: Historical Fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Grade: ****
Rating: PG (some violence)

Three kids find themselves brought together thanks to boxing champ Joe Louis. Hibernia, Willie and Otis each take turns narrating chapters of the text covering the year from June 1936 to June 1937.
Hibernia is the daughter of a single father preacher. Her mother left just after Hibernia was born to pursue her dream of singing. Hibernia has never known anything more about her but inherited her mother’s gift for song. She has a formal sort of relationship with her stern father, which progresses and improves as the story unfolds, and he allows Hibernia some freedom to practice her singing and begins to answer some of her questions about her mother.
Willie, though he’s not actually an orphan, has found his way to Mercy Orphanage. His father, Sampson, is a no-good drunk and after he’d beat Willie and burned his hands practically to stumps, his mother told him how to find the place and made him promise her he’d stay there safe until she could come get him.  He’s a boxer at heart but doesn’t know what he’ll do with his damaged hands and broken heart.
Otis recently lost both of his parents in a car accident. He finds that the easiest form of communication for him comes through the riddles his father used to tell him. Leila, one of the orphanage’s overseers, and the new boy Willie understand that and the two boys become fast friends. They push and support each other in the right places without really knowing that they’re doing it. They also tune into the small radio Otis inherited from his father to listen to the fights, following their favorite, The Brown Bomber, most closely. And later, when Hibernia’s church choir gives a performance at the orphanage, Otis is smitten and the three find their lives overlapping.
Each child is somehow swept up in the boxing contagion that gripped the nation during the Great Depression. The world needed something to cheer about and boxing somehow fit that need. The black community was doubly proud of their hometown boy becoming not only a national hero but eventually the world champion.
I really enjoyed this little book. I have to admit I went into it thinking it was about something else completely and was pleasantly surprised even after I realized it was primarily about boxing (a sport which I loathe and can find pretty much zero merit in.) The voices are well-done, each being unique and having just a flavor of dialect adding some authenticity without making the text hard to follow. The scene is set perfectly. The time period is clear and acts as a backdrop without heavy-handedly taking over the story. There’s a bit of harsh reality mixed in but it’s primarily a story about fighting when you’re down and persevering despite the odds. There’s hope and humor and a feeling of pride and optimism that easily balances out the darker moments.
There’s also an extensive author’s note at the back that gives a brief bio of Joe Louis and why he meant so much to the country and notes about the radio commentary found throughout the text (which is taken from actual broadcasts.) Other fact vs. fiction moments are discussed and there are brief biographical sketches of other famous people and places mentioned in the story (Ella Fitzgerald, The Savoy Ballroom, Max Schmeling etc.) to give some additional context for readers who may not be familiar with them. The author also explains how many of the stories were based on things that actually happened to members of her family.

This is a great little peek into the time period, full of heart.  Highly recommended!

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