I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Book review by
Barbara Schultz, Common Sense Media
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Book Poster Image
Popular with kids
Poetic autobiography reveals impact of racial prejudice.

Parents say

age 16+
Based on 6 reviews

Kids say

age 14+
Based on 10 reviews

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first autobiographical book by Maya Angelou, the acclaimed author gives readers a profound education about the lives of black people in the American South during the 1930s. Angelou not only reveals the ways she and the other African-American citizens of Stamps, AK, were constantly degraded, demoralized, and threatened by whites, but she also places them in historical context and reflects poignantly on the effects these experiences had on her self-image. Other educational details include descriptions of the differences between black and white schools at that time, a bit about life in 1930s St. Louis, and a good deal about the neighborhoods and race roles in World War II-era San Francisco.

Positive Messages

Just as Maya Angelou reveals the degrading injustice that pervaded American life for blacks--and especially female blacks--during the time when she was growing up, she also shows the impressive courage, intellect, and pride it took to persevere under those circumstances. She also emphasizes the strong impact that a great teacher or mentor can have on a young person, and the power of familial love and religious faith.

Positive Role Models & Representations

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou repeatedly acknowledges the mentors who helped her develop her inner strength and love of learning: Her grandmother, whom she called Momma, provided moral backbone as wll as unswerving care and sacrifice. A sophisticated neighbor, Mrs. Flowers, uses her love of literature to help Maya overcome a trauma and rediscover her own voice. A special teacher, Miss Kirwin, inspires Maya's love of learning and gives her a rare glimpse at a world where achievement is rewarded fairly, with no regard for race.


In Stamps, AK, young men live in threat of violence if they are believed to have made sexual overtures to white women; Angelou describes grown men hiding in fear from the Klu Klux Klan. Maya's brother, Bailey Jr., sees a dead man's body fished out of a river. In St. Louis, In St. Louis, Maya is molested twice, and raped once by her mother's live-in boyfriend, who threatens to kill her brother if she tells anyone. Maya's uncles are known to be violent, and they apparently beat to death the man who hurt Maya. Later in the book, in California, Maya is physically attacked and cut by the girlfreind of her father, Bailey Sr.


Sexual activity in the book ranges from confused to violent. Maya and her brother, Bailey Jr., overhear adults talking about people "doing it."  After she fails to recover emotionally from a sexual assault, Maya and her brother are sent back to Stamps, where 11-year-old Bailey Jr. gets involved sexually with an older girl. Maya's father is a womanizer; his sexual exploits are not described, but it is known that he is involved with multiple partners. Her mother has live-in boyfriends, but sometimes stays out all night and seems also to have multiple partners. As Maya grows older, she develops confusion about the ways her body is changing and seems different from some of her peers, and wonders about lesbianism, which she briefly erroneously associates with hermaphrodites. She later has intercourse once with a boy her age in an effort to understand her own sexuality better.


Whites use the "N" word in reference to blacks. Other offensive words include "bitch" and "whore."


Small emphasis is placed on the quality of men's suits, and homemade or "cut-down" second-hand dresses vs. store-bought dresses. In Momma's store in Stamps, patrons consume Coca-Cola and brand-name candy bars.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Angelou's mother and Grandmother Baxter (on her mother's side) smoke cigarettes; Grandmother Baxter suffers from chronic bronchitis as a result. Her father, Bailey Sr., drinks to excess and becomes so drunk on a driving trip to Mexico that Maya, then age 15, tries to drive his car home.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that the first volume in poet Maya Angelou's autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is a poignant and poetic account of the author's life up until age 17. Named for the caged-bird image that Lawrence Dunbar used in his poem "Sympathy," the book honestly reveals the cruelty, indignity, and injustice that confined African Americans in the 1930s and '40s -- the cage -- but also celebrates black people's spirit, humor, and courage. Reading Dunbar's poem may offer further insight into this book. Nominated for a National Book Award, this autobiographical work is strong, honest, and beautifully written, but it details some very upsetting personal incidents, including the rape of a very young girl, shocking racial prejudice, and gritty urban life, so it may be too disturbing for preteens. Angelou also wrote the screenplay for a 1999 movie adaptation of the book. 

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written by4concernedparents September 24, 2014

An adult book

The book features details about the rape of an 8 year old girl by her stepfather, tween sex between and 11 year old and a 14 year old, pages of the author quest... Continue reading
Parent of a 15-year-old Written byKyra M. June 9, 2017
There are some heavy subjects brought up in this book that are not appropriate for a high -school reader. There is a graphic rape scene among other issues.
Teen, 17 years old Written bySuperstrahan17 December 17, 2012

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Review

This book stars a poetic woman who from earlier in her life goes through various hardships, but manages to come through a triumphant woman we know and love toda... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byread08 January 18, 2020

What's the story?

I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS is the first volume in poet Maya Angelou's autobiography. In this book, Marguerite (nicknamed Maya) and her brother, Bailey Jr., are sent to Stamps, AK, to live with their grandmother around 1934 when they are 6 and 8 years old, respectively. In Stamps, they're raised with love by their strict, stoic, religious grandmother (Momma) and their disabled uncle Willie. Though Momma owns the black area of Stamps' only general store and is somewhat wealthy by local standards, the children suffer the same cruel racial bigotry as any black people in that place at that time. As the book progresses, the siblings are shuttled between Stamps, St. Louis, MO (where their mother and her family live for a time), and San Francisco (where their mother eventually settles). Along the way, Maya's life and self-image are shaped as much by the terrific mentors in her life and the love of family members as it is by the shocking racial prejudice in her world or by her traumatic rape as a child.

Is it any good?

Angelou's autobiography is an important and honest look at racial prejudice in the United States during the 1930s and '40s, but it's also as compelling and lyrical as a great novel. Young Maya and the other "characters" are richly realized and complex. The author tells a far-reaching story, emotionally and historically; this book is an essential document for young people who want to understand the plight of African Americans and the ways prejudice affects individuals. The book was nominated for a National Book Award.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the title of the book and what it means. What are some examples in the book of "caged birds" singing?

  • Look at the overt and the less obvious examples of racial prejudice in the book. What incidents in the book illustrate prejudice and its impact?

  • Talk about gender roles in the world of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. How are women victimized, and celebrated, in the book?

  • What role does religion play in Momma's life and in Maya's? 

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is often required reading in school. Why do you think that is? 

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love stories of the African-American experience

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