Living in Michigan, I often hear stories about Joe Louis. There is even a statue of his fist in downtown Detroit--a must-see if you ever visit. I was excited to read the author's note at the beginning of Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney and find out that it is set against the backdrop of several famous Joe Louis boxing matches. Bird in a Box is the story of three children, Hibernia Lee Tyson, Willie, and Otis, and how their lives intersect throughout 1936-1937 in Elmira, New York.
Hibernia, who lives with her father, the Reverend at the True Vine Baptist Church, was born to sing. However, her mother has left the family to pursue a singing career and the Reverend is not interested in having Hibernia follow the same path. As Hibernia aptly explains, "Time and time again, I have tried to tell the reverend that to deny me the opportunity to present my vocal abilities to a dance-floor crowd is to trap my God-given gifts under a butterfly net."
Willie, an aspiring boxer himself, lives with his mother and father. His father, Sampson, is a violent drunk. After a terrible incident with Sampson, Willie's mother sends him to the safety of Mercy, an orphanage. At Mercy, Willie meets Lila, a caretaker who has recently begun attending True Vine Baptist Church and Otis, whose parents have been killed in a recent accident. The boys become fast friends and allies who also share a love of listening to Joe Louis fights on Otis' most prized possession, a Philco radio that belonged to his father.
When Lila invites the True Vine youth choir to sing for the children at Mercy during the holidays, Otis develops a crush on Hibernia. Both Lila and Willie help Otis as he offers Hibernia an important piece of himself. We also get to see Hibernia break through her father's concerns about singing and truly shine on a public stage and Willie work to overcome the tragic family events that landed him at Mercy.
I was interested to read about people gathering within the community to listen to the boxing matches on the radio. It's hard to imagine a time when media wasn't at our fingertips, but Pinkney's novel helps explain the radio my grandmother keeps on a shelf in her living room to this day. I also loved the voice of each character in the book. Lila is compassionate and kind, she cares for the children at Mercy as if they were her own. Willie and Otis are feisty boys who develop a strong and amazing friendship. Hibernia is sassy, smart, and interesting--my kind of girl!
There are some great historical notes at the end of the book about the real people and places mentioned within the text and a section of additional reading (one of my favorite things!)
And, as a side note, I LOVE this cover and can't wait to see the art in the finished copy!
Bird in a Box will be published by Little, Brown in April 2011. Read from Net Galley on my NOOKcolor.