Andrea Davis Pinkney is well known for her biographical picture books, biographies, and historical fiction. She does terrific research, mining family as well as archival sources so that her books assemble themselves around the reader like comfortable clothes. When she writes about Duke Ellington, you can tell that she was listening to Live at the Blue Note the whole time.
Bird in a Box is a more purely novelish novel - although Joe Louis's 1937 World Championship boxing match provides a backdrop and a connection point for the novel's characters, the book is not about the fight.
The book is about three twelve-year-old black kids, two of them living in an orphanage. Each of these kids (and in fact, most of the adults in the book) has experienced grievous sorrow: abandonment, abuse, or death. But it is not a sad book - Otis, Willie and Hibernia are shaped by their experiences but not flattened by them. They're kids, after all, and susceptible to comfort. Otis finds a cat; Hibernia sings; Willie bonds with a lady at the orphanage. Otis and Willie play pranks on the mean orphanage director.
And when Joe Louis wins the World Heavyweight championship, they are together, celebrating like Langston Hughes:
Each time Joe Louis won a fight in those depression years, even before he became champion, thousands of colored Americans on relief or W.P.A., and poor, would throng out into the streets all across the land to march and cheer and yell and cry because of Joe's one-man triumphs. No one else in the United States has ever had such an effect on Negro emotions – or on mine. I marched and cheered and yelled and cried, too.
Andrea Davis Pinkney quotes this passage in her Author's Note at the beginning of the book. It's a lot to live up to, but by the end of the book, when I was swiping tears from my eyes and smiling at the same time, I was happy to realize that I was in the mood to march and cheer and yell and cry, maybe even bang some pots and pans. Bravo.
I read this as a NetGalley download on my black and white Sony Reader, so I have something to look forward to when the print book comes out - illustrations and a cover by Sean Qualls, whose jazzy geometric watercolors were so perfect for Dizzy and 'Trane.