A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
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.
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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?
Themes & Topics
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For kids who love stories of the African-American experience
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