I’m so thrilled to finally hold this book in my hands!
I’ve loved Maya Angelou’s work for what seems like forever, but is more like forty years. Well, to some that would be forever. In this stellar biography, we get to focus on how the little girl transformed into the amazing woman we all remember.
The opening words:
The train looms,
a mass of metal
Maya and her brother, Bailey,
Like luggage they have been packed
and shipped off
to Stamps, Arkansas.
Notice how the particular words selected: looms, mass, metal evoke a sense of foreboding. The two children hold hands. We see an interior image of the train, one that doesn’t look too scary, except for the fact that the pair is alone.
They have been “packed” and “shipped off” like packages, each child tagged with their grandmother’s name, Miss Annie (Momma) Henderson, and destination. We know from the foreword, that Angelou’s mother had her own troubled childhood, one that makes her a less than perfect parent.
Angelou and her brother Bailey are shipped back and forth, between their mother in St. Louis and their grandmother’s house in Stamps, Arkansas—both places far from perfect for a young African American girl. Angelou witnesses the racism of the south, the petty, daily humiliations contrasted with her mother’s life in the fast lane in the city, and her mother’s boyfriend who abuses Angelou and and then dies. The spread depicting this incident is sinister, yet understated. Angelou is curled into a small ball on her bed, the shadow of her abuser hovering in the background. Hegedus has made a courageous decision not to skirt this aspect of Angelou’s life.
Angelou believes her accusation killed the man and refuses to speak for the next six years. She lives in a place of ache and grief until words help her rise, set her free.
Although Angelou’s life contains more than its share of tragedy, her courage shines through. She becomes a dancer, a trolley car conductor, a young mother, a burger flipper, and on and on, until her life in the spotlight begins. Performing takes her to Europe and Egypt and then to Harlem. She hears Dr. King’s words and becomes an activist, then a journalist in Egypt and Ghana. But then her friend Malcolm X is slain, followed by Dr. King, on her birthday. Her friend, James Baldwin, keeps her from disappearing back into the mute despair of her childhood. In the process, she transforms into an author, giving voice to all that came before. And as an author, a poet, she shines.
Bethany Hegedus has written a powerful and mesmerizing book, in lyrical language well-suited to her subject. I am awed by the strength that flows through these words, like a train, like a bird, like a woman who refused to let life beat her down.
Instead, she rose.
Hegedus includes back matter with a timeline, photos, and a note about childhood sexual abuse and resources for those affected by it, either as a survivor or someone who wants to know how to support a friend or family member who has been abused. Tonya Engel, the illustrator, has selected a palette that, especially for the cover, reminds me of a sunrise. The acrylic and oil paintings contain elements of magical realism, with ribbons of words looping across the pages as Angelou floats and flies. In contrast, Momma Henderson stays grounded, perhaps a metaphor for her stabilizing influence. On the page where we’re first introduced to Momma, she’s described as being “tall as a sycamore” while the illustration shows the lower portion of her body as a thick tree trunk. Just one of many exquisitely beautiful touches.
Bravo to author and illustrator!
Make a dove of peace
Listen to Maya Angelou read her inaugural poem
Talk to children about sexual abuse in an age appropriate way
Title: Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou
Author: Bethany Hegedus
Illustrator: Tonya Engel
Publisher: Lee & Low, 2019
Ages: Elementary school
Themes: Strength and determination, sexual abuse, African American history
For more perfect picture book recommendations, see Susanna Hill’s blog.