When Joe Louis, also known as the “Brown Bomber,” defeated Irish American boxer James J. Braddock in 1937 to win the world heavyweight boxing championship, it was more than just a sports victory. “[T]he event instilled overwhelming pride in the hearts of African Americans,” writes author Andrea Davis Pinkney in the closing note of her new children’s novel Bird in a Box (Little Brown), which includes cover art and opening-chapter illustrations from Sean Qualls.
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Pinkney’s novel tells the story of three children from separate upstate New York homes during America’s Great Depression, whose lives eventually intersect and are also impacted in one way or another by Louis’s victory.
Hibernia, whose mother abandoned the family to pursue a singing career in New York City, lives with her father, the Rev. C. Elias Tyson and longs to make it big in the music business herself. Possessed with a swingin’ singing voice, she feels somewhat stifled by church choir tunes and would like to prove that she “can roll out a tune sweet enough to bake”—at the Savoy Ballroom, no less, just as her mother wanted.
Willie’s mother tells him one fateful night to leave home, arming him with a medal of Saint Christopher to hang around his neck, and head for the Mercy Home for Negro Orphans after his consistently abusive alcoholic father presses Willie’s hands into a scalding mix of stovetop hominy, leaving them useless, broken stumps.
Otis loses his loving parents in a tragic auto accident. With three things of his father’s left in his possession, including his beloved Philco radio, Otis also heads to Mercy.
And it’s the radio broadcast of the Brown Bomber’s fight with Braddock—Pinkney choosing to include actual radio commentary taken from the recordings of broadcasts of Louis fights—which ultimately brings all three children together in a close to the novel that sings with joy: “Everything’s mixed up and blurry from happy crying that won’t quit. But I am clear on knowing one thing,” Otis says. “There’s no more yesterday. There isn’t even tomorrow. All I have is now. Here. With…Joe Louis. The Brown Bomber. Giving us brightness and hope.”
In short chapters that alternate among the immediate, first-person voices of Hibernia, Willie and Otis, Pinkney’s historical fiction tells a compelling story about not only learning to overcome fear and learning to trust but also finding freedom in giving up your fight. Each child finds some sort of inner fortitude in doing so: Hibernia finds her voice, in more ways than one, by putting some sass into her singing one day at a church event (“I’m gonna shout when the Spirit says a-shooouut!”); Willie refuses to give up on his hands, which once cut some mean boxing moves of their own, and finds his old moves, also in more ways than one; and Otis overcomes his grief to let happy memories sustain him—not to mention tackles his nerves in order to speak to Hibernia, with whom he is seriously smitten. (Uh-huh, as Willie would say.) And all is facilitated by Lila Weiss, the kind woman in charge of the orphans at Mercy.
Although there were a few holes in character development in this novel that left me wanting—Hibernia’s father, for one, starts out as overly protective and then suddenly has a change of heart for reasons that weren’t clear—Pinkney turns some swingin’ phrases of her own here and gives the novel a heart that beats with its own vivacious rhythm.
Hibernia says Chick Webb doesn’t play his drums. He works them. She also says, when she finds her inner swing, that she’s not singing, but siiiinging. All the same can be said for Pinkney, who lets her own tunes fly, with her ability to establish a distinctive tone and bring vivid metaphors to readers. Such writing siiiings and swings. As Willie might say, Pinkney knows how to get her oh, yeahs on and writes with her own “happy, steady stomp”: “Morning drops down like a blanket of butter.” “Nighttime’s putting on a cape and sweeping it across the sky.” “If a whittle stick had a twin, Otis’d be it.”
And each child’s moment of transformation—Hibernia’s “jazzifying” the hymns for a performance at Mercy (required reading for anyone wanting to see how an author nails the pace and mood of a chapter); Willie’s own jabbing at the air due to his inability to keep himself in his seat while listening to the end of the famous boxing match; and Otis’ connection to his father by hearing the big fight on his beloved Philco—is written so tenderly and joyfully that I was left, as Otis is when he hears Hibernia sing, with “gladness big in my heart.”
Uh-huh and oh yeah.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books. When forced to count, she thinks it's more like between 400 to 500 features of book creators over the past five years. Julie received her Master's in Information Sciences at UT, with a focus on children's librarianship. She is currently writing about the untold tales of children's literature, along with Elizabeth Bird and Peter D. Sieruta. Tentatively titled Wild Things!: The True, Untold Stories Behind the Most Beloved Children’s Books and Their Creators, it will be published by Candlewick Press in 2012.