Cover image for Bird in a box
Bird in a box
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Little, Brown, 2011.
Physical Description:
278 p. : ill. ; 20 cm.
Reading Level:
670 L Lexile
Added Author:
In 1936, three children meet at the Mercy Home for Negro Orphans in New York State, and while not all three are orphans, they are all dealing with grief and loss which together, along with the help of a sympathetic staff member and the boxing matches of Joe Louis, they manage to overcome. Includes author's notes.


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Otis, Willie, and Hibernia are three children with a lot in common: they've all lost a loved one, they each have secret dreams, and they won't stop fighting for what they want. And they're also a lot like their hero, famed boxer Joe Louis. Throughout this moving novel, their lives gradually converge to form friendship, family, and love. Their trials and triumphs echo those of Joe Louis, as he fights to become the heavyweight boxing champion.

Andrea Pinkney masterfully weaves in factual information about Joe Louis and actual radio commentary from his fights, enriching the narrative of this uniquely rendered and beautifully written novel.

Author Notes

Andrea Pinkney is the author of many award-winning books for children. Many were collaborations with her husband, illustrator Brian Pinkney. She is also an editor at Scholastic. They live inBrooklyn with their two children.

Sean Qualls is the illustrator of a number of celebrated books for children, including Before John Was a Jazz Giant by Carole Boston Weatherford, for which he received a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor, and Dizzy by Jonah Winter, an ALA Notable Book, a Kirkus Best Book, and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. He has also illustrated Little Cloud and Lady Wind by Toni Morrison and her son Slade and Giant Steps to Change The World by Spike and Tonya Lee, which will be published in January 2011. Sean lives with his wife, illustrator Selina Alko, and their two children in Brooklyn, NY.

Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

This rich historical novel offers an unsentimental and sometimes humorous glimpse into the Great Depression. Pinkney (Sit-In) alternates between the first-person perspectives of three resilient and tenacious protagonists-12-year-old minister's daughter Hibernia, aka Bernie, who dreams of becoming a jazz singer like her absent mother; 13-year-old abused and abandoned Willie, who must relinquish his dreams of boxing after his father burns his hands; and orphaned 12-year-old Otis, who comforts himself with the riddles his parents loved. Both Willie and Otis live in the Mercy Orphanage, where kind, spunky manager Lila Weiss is both a child advocate and motherly figure. Famed African American boxer Joe Louis, whose matches Bernie, Willie, and Otis listen to on the radio, serves as both a powerful symbol and unifying thread in the story ("When Joe Louis fights, it's more than just throwing punches," Otis's mother tells him. "That boy's fighting for the pride of Negroes"). Pinkney enlivens potentially remote historical circumstances through her sympathetic characters who, despite the constraints of their era, struggle for dignity and human connection on their own terms. Ages 8-12. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Horn Book Review

In alternating chapters, three preadolescent African American narrators reveal their deep private pain: Hibernia's mother left her and her father, a minister in "slowpoke Elmira, New York," to pursue a singing career at the Savoy Ballroom; Otis's devoted parents were killed in a highway accident; and Willie's father abused him cruelly. As their lives intersect during the year before Joe Louis wins his heavyweight championship fight (against James J. Braddock, on June 22, 1937), the three young people prove resilient and receptive to friendship and a more hopeful future. Despite the serious problems of poverty during the Great Depression, a humorous tone ripples throughout this well-researched historical novel. Each character -- represented by a chapter-heading icon of high heels, boxing gloves, or a radio -- projects a distinctive voice. The title reference is vague, and young readers will need to pay attention to dates in the subheadings, since the present-tense action starts the day before the fight, skips back to cover previous months, and ends with the Louis knockout -- a landmark event in the characters' lives, as it was in boxing and African American history. An author's note provides information on Joe Louis's career and on other "real people and places," along with a list of factual resources. betsy hearne (c) Copyright 2011. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Booklist Review

Bookended by two historic Joe Louis fights his first professional loss, to Max Schmeling in 1936, and then his world heavyweight bout with James J. Braddock in 1937 this well-crafted novel follows three young boxing fans. Pinkney instills a distinct narrative voice for each character: the sweet-singing, jazz-club-aspiring Hibernia; the riddle-quoting orphan Otis; and the young boxer Willie. After Willie has his hands crippled by his abusive father, he runs away and befriends Otis at the Mercy Home for Negro Orphans. Meanwhile, Hibernia'. pink-frie. vocal stylings are too sassy for her church choir leader, but at a concert for the orphans, Otis becomes about as sweet on her as can be. As Louis gets closer to his heavyweight-title shot, the three kids band together to root on their hero. Children who have graduated from Matt de la Pena and Kadir Nelson's excellent A Nation's Hope (2011) will be shown just how culturally significant Louis really was with this stirring novel, which also scores high marks as a satisfying read for both boys and girls.--Chipman, Ia. Copyright 2010 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

IF the magazine The Ring were to rank oxymorons, "children's boxing book" would be No. 1 in the heavyweight division. The time has long since passed when fathers and their children - almost always, it's true, their sons - would go to the fights or watch them on television Friday nights, bonding over blood and gore. Now, such pursuits might be deemed child abuse. For a sport once second only to baseball in popularity, it's just another cause of death. Yet here, miraculously, are two boxing-related books for young people: "A Nation's Hope," a superbly illustrated picture book by Matt de la Peña and Kadir Nelson, and "Bird in a Box," a powerful middle-grade novel by Andrea Davis Pinkney. And, in a second swipe at political correctness, each highlights that most unfashionable of figures: Joe Louis. Sports not on life support can accommodate many heroes - Derek Jeter doesn't threaten Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio. But boxing has no contemporary claimants, and mired in historic disrepute, it retains few. The plodding, inarticulate and apolitical Joe Louis, unlike the more flamboyant Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali, has been reduced to a footnote. Except, that is, to anyone (and particularly anyone black) who lived through and remembers Louis's glorious career in the 1930s and '40s, when he electrified the nation, gave hope to an entire race and became the first black athlete to "cross over" to a white fan base. Louis was incontrovertibly one of the key black figures of the 20th century. So it's heartening to discover two books that begin to tell his story and remedy this injustice for the next generation. "Bird in a Box" isn't about Joe Louis per se. Instead, with tenderness and verve, it tells the stories of three 12-year-old black children, Hibernia, Otis and Willie, in Depression-era Elmira, N.Y. Hibernia's mother abandoned her when she was a baby - to sing, she hoped, at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem - leaving the girl to her preacher father. Otis and Willie grow up in the Mercy Home for Negro Orphans: Otis's parents are killed driving their truck, and in a drunken fit, Willie's father sticks Willie's hands in a pot of boiling grits, reducing them to stumps and ending Willie's own dreams of glory in the ring. Inspiring them throughout is Joe Louis. For the three children, as for millions of Americans, Louis's nationally broadcast fights are communal, semireligious events. Pinkney has done her homework, but she occasionally goofs. Louis's promoter, for example, needed no gimmicks to generate interest in him. And blacks never had to donate nickels to prop up his career. Only much later - by which time the book's characters would have been young adults - did he become a charity case. "Bird in a Box" culminates on June 22, 1937, when Louis knocks out the "Cinderella Man," James J. Braddock, to win the heavyweight crown. But Hibernia, Otis and Willie would riave known, as Louis himself knew, that he wasn't really champion yet. That didn't happen until he beat the German boxer Max Schmeling. Their rematch, at Yankee Stadium in 1938, the most widely anticipated sporting event of its era, is the subject of "A Nation's Hope." A picture book is not the place to explore subtleties like Schmeling's ambiguous ties to the Nazis. Besides, that's not how people saw it at the time: this was a struggle of good against evil, with Louis just about the only man willing to take on Hitler. De la Peña's succinct text and Nelson's intensely beautiful paintings don't require much more time than Louis needed for Schmeling. But some 70 years later, the story is no less stirring. "A Nation's Hope": In 1938, most Americans saw Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling as good vs. evil. David Margolick is the author of "Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink" and "Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock," to be published in October.

School Library Journal Review

Gr 4-7-It is 1936, and the country is struggling in the midst of the Great Depression. As Joe Louis inches closer to becoming the American heavyweight boxing champion, his victories spark hope in a nation starved for good news. Against this backdrop, Pinkney introduces three narrators whose lives are about to intersect. Hibernia chafes at her father's overprotectiveness: since her mother left them with dreams of singing at the Savoy, the reverend limits Hibernia's singing to the church choir. Otis misses his parents terribly: the three of them never had much, but they had laughter, which came to an end in a fiery car crash. Willie tries to ignore his alcoholic father until the night that the abusive man disfigures Willie's hands and his mother convinces him to flee for safety. The two boys meet at the Mercy Home for Negro Orphans and slowly learn to trust one another. When Hibernia's youth choir performs a Christmas concert there, Otis is smitten. With the help of a caring orphanage worker, the three youngsters are able to navigate the complex waters of adolescence, learning that using one's wits can be more powerful than beating against the walls of a box. Pinkney weaves quite a bit of 1930s history into her story and succeeds admirably in showing how Louis came to represent so much more than his sport. Her detailed notes make this an accessible and inspiring piece of historical fiction that belongs in most collections.-Kim Dare, Fairfax County Public Schools, VA (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Review

It's the era of Joe Louis at Yankee Stadium, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington at the Savoy and Philco radios in living rooms across the country, hope and dreams afloat on the airwaves. Told in the alternating voices of 12-year-olds Hibernia, Otis and Willie, and covering the period between Louis' 1936 loss to Max Schmeling and his 1937 title fight with James Braddock, the artfully orchestrated novel is related with grace, restraint and a wealth of historical detail. This last is carefully woven into the fabric of the story and rarely calls attention to itself. Even before they meet later in the story, the young trio is linked by their radios, bringing themGang Busters,The Lone Ranger,Fibber McGee and Molly, Jack Benny, the Chick Webb Orchestra from the Savoy Ballroom and, most importantly, Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, whom they understand is "fighting for the pride of Negroes." The three protagonists come together in the final scene, in which Louis fights Braddock for the heavyweight championship of the world. Perfect pacing and italicized radio commentary drawn from Pinkney's research provide a tense and rousing closing, in which the dreams that Louis represented do come true, and three new friends find that "faith is here like a long-gone friend."(Historical fiction. 9-14)]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.