I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou)


There are some books, some authors, whose styles resonate soundly within me. To Kill a Mockingbird is that way. Every time I crack it open, I literally sigh my way through it because it is just so...beautiful.

I really like to read and enjoy a rather nice variety of genres, but I LOVE it when an author takes ordinary words and crafts them into something so pretty it can only be called art.

Maya Angelou is an amazing wordsmith, and I adore her style. When I was about 2 chapters in to this book, all I could think was I will never forgive my high school English teachers for not exposing us to this.* I mean, we had to read "Hedda Gabler," for cryin' out loud! Ugh.


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Maya Angelou's autobiography. She and her older brother Bailey were brought South to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas when they were children (this would be the 50's), and encountered more than one brush with racism in its ugliest forms. The best parts of this book are Maya's penning of segregation and racism in ways most people have never fathomed. Before long they were returned to live with their mother, in California. She was a wild woman with a fierce love for her children but little regard for structured parenting. Maya's experiences living with her mother taught her everything she wanted to know and didn't want to know about family. Sadly, young Maya was sexually abused for a lengthy period of time, and soon after she and her brother returned to Arkansas for a time before a string of moves involving their father, their mother, and their grandmother. As Maya grew into a young woman, she questioned everything about herself, including her appearance, her sexuality, and her relationships with her family members. This "self-discovery" led to a pregnancy, and at a very young age Maya Angelou became a mother to her son.

Eventually Maya ended up in the theater and, through both her innate ability to paint pictures with her words and her proclivity for delivering them theatrically, has become an icon of both this century and the last. She continues to write and speak about her life, and the literary world is a better place because she's in it.

Some of my favorite lines from the book:

On Maya's and Bailey's arriving in Stamps, Arkansas: "The town reacted to us as its inhabitants had reacted to all things new before our coming. It regarded us a while without curiosity but with caution, and after we were seen to be harmless (and children) it closed in around us, as a real mother embrace's a stranger's child. Warmly, but not too familiarly." pg. 5

"Of all the needs (and there are none imaginary) a lonely child has, the one that must be satisfied, if there is going to be hope and a hope of wholeness, is the unshaking need for an unshakable God." pg. 23

On her relationship with her brother: "Bailey was the greatest person in my world. And the fact that he was my brother, my only brother, and I had no sisters to share him with, was such good fortune that it made me want to live a Christian life just to show God I was grateful." pg. 22

Maya's feelings while listening to a white politician giving a speech at her high school graduation: "We were maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous." pg. 180

*I suspect that the reason I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was kept from us in high school was the chapter toward the end in which she struggles with issues relating to her sexuality. If I'm right, I find this rather unfortunate. I'm a full believer in taking care not to expose children and young adults to material not developmentally appropriate. I also believe that we all need to do a better job of making sure that we aren't "protecting" children and teenagers from issues we find too uncomfortable ourselves. Yet again, a post for another day.

Too Small to Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most (Wess Stafford)

Today, Wess Stafford is the president and CEO of Compassion International, which is a global child-focused sponsorship organization grounded in Christlike principles. Compassion International helps over 1 million impoverished children and their families with basic needs and education in at least 26 different countries. Today, Wess Stafford is at the helm of one of the largest and most efficient aid organizations in the world.

Fifty years ago, Wess Stafford was growing up in a tiny West African village (with French influence) called Nielle. In this book, he describes his childhood and the wonderful pieces of wisdom he discovered about life through the people of Nielle...the most important being that all children are important. He writes about the differences in typical American culture and typical African culture, and how valued children tend to be in African circles. Children are given important jobs. They are always included, never shut out or sent to a play room to be occupied while dinner was cooked. They were watched over but not hovered over. Life was and is very dangerous for a child in Africa, so they were and are taught responsibility and how to contribute at a very early age. Children are counted on because all children are important.

Stafford's interesting perspective on child advocacy comes from his experiences of being highly valued as a child in Nielle, but it also grows out of some very ugly experiences in a boarding school several months out of the year in another part of West Africa. There he and his sister, along with hundreds of other kids, were abused in the worst ways possible by people who had been entrusted with their care. Describing a few dark memories from this time, he shows how ugly people can be to innocent children...especially when those people know that the children cannot speak out for themselves and will not be heard by anyone who could help them. Their experiences are much like that of millions of children who are abused and neglected on a regular basis. Adults abuse children because they are powerless. Most of the time adults abuse children who are too small to have a voice, or they scare them into silence. Stafford challenges readers to view children as God sees them: as important. He gives several examples from Scripture when God had a big task and only a little child would do. Jesus Himself publicly admonished his disciples at least twice because they were trying to belittle the relevance of children in His presence.

If this sounds like a book for you, be warned that there are some truly horrific stories within these pages. Some of them are from Wess Stafford's visit to Haiti or Rwanda. All of these stories, combined with Stafford's personal childhood, have sparked a bottomless passion within him to advocate for children on every level of society but especially the most powerless: the poor. He presents some specific ideas for changing the way the world thinks about children, and ways to elevate them from being a discarded member or society to an intensely valued member of society. Wess Stafford is intensely passionate that all children are important, and by the time you finish the last page, you'll believe that just as deeply as he does.

Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can't Avoid (Lemony Snicket)

Lemony Snicket (which I think is a pseudonym for Daniel Handler, and a writer who I find fabulously entertaining) is best known for his authorship of the Series of Unfortunate Events. I have a few books left to complete the series, but I know enough about them to know that A) Lemony Snicket is hilarious, and B) this series in particular is most delicious when consumed audibly.

Horseradish is a collection of maxims that are categorized by applicable areas of life (as Lemony Snicket sees them), including Home, Family, Literature, A Life of Mystery, the Mystery of Life, and An Overall Feeling of Doom that One Cannot Ever Escape No Matter What One Does, etc. There are some adages that are of a more serious nature, and others which seem serious but end silly. And then there are those that start silly and end serious. Something for everyone, you see.

Just a few of my favorites:

"No matter who you are, no matter where you live, and no matter how many people are chasing you, what you don't read is often as important as what you do read."

"A good library will never be too neat, or too dusty, because somebody will always be in it, taking books off the shelves and staying up late to read them."

"A library is like an island in the middle of a vast sea of ignorance, particularly if the library is very tall and the surrounding area has been flooded."

"Love can change a person the way a parent can change a baby - awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess."

"Just about everything in this world is easier said than done, with the exception of "systematically assisting Sisyphus's stealthy, cyst-susceptible sister," which is easier done than said."

Easily consumed in one sitting, Horseradish is sarcasm at its best.

I Have a Dream (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

In this book, fifteen winners of the Coretta Scott King Award come together to illustrate Dr. King's most famous oratory in its entirety. Each page illustrates a section of his "I Have a Dream" speech that was given on the steps of the Lincoln monument on August 28,1963. It is a brilliant work, giving readers a visual connection to the events that had taken place to inspire Dr. King's speech.

My favorite line from each page:
-I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
-This momentous decree [the Emancipation Proclamation] came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering justice.
-But one hundred years later...the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination...
-When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir....It is obvious today that America has defaulted on the promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned....But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.
-This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.
-There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.
-Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.
-We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality...We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto into a larger one.
-We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating, "For Whites Only."
-You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.
-I have a dream one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed - we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
-I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
-I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with words of interposition and nullification, one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!
-With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
-...And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children - black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics - will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

After slowly reading through the book, I then located the audio of Dr. King's speech online, and read it again, this time listening to this great man deliver his speech. And I cannot tell you how moving it is. Over and over I got chills, hearing the passion of Dr. King and the people whose voices are heard cheering in the background. Especially as the mother to two daughters, one who is white and one who is Ugandan American, the line about little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers is especially moving to me. Thank God for Dr. King and others who had the courage to stand up for freedom!

There is a special foreword written by Coretta Scott King. Her comments are the book include the following quote:
"His vision of peace with justice and love for everyone still inspires and challenges us to create the beloved community. His legacy of courage, determination, and nonviolence still lights the way to the fulfillment of his dream. May God give us the wisdom and strength to carry forward his unfinished work."

Amen and amen.

Listen to Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech here.

David Goes to School (David Shannon)

Poor David. Wherever he goes, someone is always telling him not to do this or not to do that. In this school version of No, David! this mischievous little guy gets reprimanded for everything from needing to go to the bathroom too many times to having a food fight in the lunchroom.

If you work with school age kids in any capacity, you know a David. That kid who always gets in trouble, who always has a rough time making the right choices. I love these books because they remind me what life is like from David's perspective. They remind me how bad it must feel for those kids who have the hard time making good choices and hear about it all day long, everywhere they go-from Mama, from the teacher, from the cafeteria workers... And these David books also remind me of just how good it feels when those kids hear that rare "yes" or "good job."

The David books make want to be that teacher, that librarian who gives my kids a happy encouragement.