The Book That Changed My Life: My Heart's Music

The Book That Changed My LifeThere are the moments when a single book scoops you up, holds you, rocks you, and begs you to feel your own soul’s depth. For me that book was — and still is — Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I was a teenager when I encountered Maya’s signature tale. I had read many books by that time, of course, but never before had I experienced one. Never before had a writer’s raw reality cracked me open so profoundly.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings begins when Maya is three years old and is sent to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. The book ends when, at age sixteen, Maya becomes a mother herself, giving birth to a baby son that is the child conceived when misguided Maya has relations with a boy in her town. While these elements make up the plot that frames the narrative, it’s the flesh-and-bone storytelling that sank so deeply into my own pores and marrow, and that had such a powerful effect.

Growing up as a black teenager with secret aspirations of becoming a writer, I didn’t know you could expose your deepest self in the ways Maya does. No one told me it was safe to peel back your skin so that you could let your nerves, emotions, and entrails drive a story. Until then, I had a superficial understanding of what was considered “real” literature. I thought that for stories to matter they had to be dressed up. I somehow thought that to be a true writer you had to put a sheen on your narrative to make it look good. I believed the “best” stories were those delivered with heaps of varnish.

It was the 1970s when Caged Bird landed in my life like a leaf that gently falls on your path to unexpectedly present its beauty. Looking back, I now see that, in many respects, I had caged myself without knowing it. In those rocky years when childhood starts to fade and becoming an adult looms, I suffered from a syndrome that I now refer to as “anxious apartness” — that gnawing, yawning, ferocious monster that tells us we’re less-than.

This had a lot to do with being the only black girl in most situations, coupled with learning struggles and fears about the future of black people in America (back then I carried the weight of my whole race on my bony shoulders). That’s when Maya Angelou’s story arrived, holding out its hands, inviting me to see that all of us have permission to explore the searing ugliness of prejudice, the complexities of family, fears, pain, and disillusionment.

At the same time, the story made me laugh in parts; it told me to lift my head up, to look myself in the eye, and to speak. I later learned that the title comes from a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem called “Sympathy,” and that the entrapped bird is a symbol of the enslavement of black people through history.

James Baldwin once said that Maya’s book “liberates the reader into life.” Yes, Maya’s story brought sweet release.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was this reader’s deliverance. It gave me permission to breathe, to unfurl the wings that God crafts for each of His children — and to set my heart’s music free!

From the May/June 2018 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference. For more in this series click the tag Book That Changed My Life.
Andrea Davis Pinkney
Andrea Davis Pinkney

Andrea Davis Pinkney's recent title is Hey, Baby Girl! (Scholastic, 2023). She is the winner of the 2013 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, published by Disney-Jump at the Sun, an imprint of Disney Book Group.

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