Bird in a Box


By Andrea Davis Pinkney

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In a small upstate New York town during the Great Depression, three children–Hibernia, Willie, and Otis–are about to meet.

Hibernia dreams of becoming a famous singer and performing at Harlem’s swanky Savoy Ballroom.
Willie is recovering from a tragedy that prevents him from becoming a junior boxing champ.
Otis spends every night glued to the radio, listening to the voices that remind him of Daddy and Ma.

Each of them is looking for hope, and they all find it in the thrilling boxing matches of young Joe Louis. They know Joe has a good chance of becoming the country’s next heavyweight champion. What they don’t know is that during this unforgettable year, the three of them will become friends.


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FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! SKIP GIBSON, YOU have done it again. You have turned Happy Hibernia into Not-Happy Hibernia.

How dare you interrupt Swing Time at the Savoy to announce the fight. Jeepers!

I'm as eager as anybody to see if Joe Louis wins, but that's a whole day away. It's bad enough that for months I've had to sneak-listen to the reverend's radio. And now that he's finally letting me enjoy my favorite program on the CBS Radio Network, you, Skip Gibson, have squashed it.

The truth is, if the reverend knew I was still thinking about singing—or swinging—at the Savoy, he'd lock me in the parish broom closet for a month. But that's Speaky's power. Speaky brings the Savoy to me and lets me dream. Even from the broom closet, I can escape to center stage, thanks to Speaky.

This all began early last summer when the parishioners at our church bought my daddy, the reverend, his brand-new Zenith radio. A gift to celebrate the church's fifth anniversary.

The reverend wasted no time getting to know his newfangled present. That's how Speaky got to be a member of our little family. My daddy even named his radio. Speaky, he calls it.

Daddy loves Speaky so much that he makes me dust the radio as part of my cleaning chores. Sometimes he watches to make sure I'm doing it right. "Bernie," he says, "give Speaky a rub with the polish, will you?" And there I am, pleasing Daddy, putting a shine to the top of Speaky, as if the radio were a bald prince getting a head wax.

Speaky is perched right next to the writing table the reverend keeps in the closed-off corner of the vestry, the private place where he writes his sermons. That cramped little space is no bigger than a bread bin, though the reverend makes it sound like it's some official office. He calls it his sermon sanctuary.

For the longest time, I was not allowed to listen to the reverend's radio. He said he was trying to protect my virtue. But I am no gullible piece of peanut brittle. I know it was more than that. The reverend was right in thinking the radio would get me to missing my mother, Pauline. When my mama left for New York City right after I was born, she hit the road with a heavy suitcase packed full with her big dream—to sing at the Savoy Ballroom, one of the swankiest nightspots in Harlem.

Some days I wish my mother had taken me with her. I guess there just wasn't enough room for me in her overstuffed luggage. But, oh, would I love something else to remember her by. All I know now of my mother is her name, Pauline—and, well, the music on the radio.

That's not much. Especially since I'm left here growing up with the reverend, who, most days, is as starched as the rice water I use to iron his shirt collars.

Sometimes it is no slice of pie being the daughter of the Reverend C. Elias Tyson, minister of the True Vine Baptist Church congregation.

Everybody adores the reverend. To his parishioners, he can do no wrong. But in the eyes of my daddy, there are some things that can never be right.

For instance, he knows I can outsing most folks, but my desire to be a big-city performer is bad news to the reverend. It riles him.

Hibernia Lee Tyson is not giving up, though. I'm going to take the dream my mother had for herself and make it come true for me.

Along with Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Webb, and Duke Ellington, someday I will call the Savoy my own. I may have to wait till I'm grown. But if the chance comes any sooner, I will jump on that chance faster than I land on a hopscotch square.

Don't let me admit any of this around the reverend. He has other notions for me. "Bernie Lee," he declares, "places like the Savoy are a hotbed of sinful activity. I believe you've been called to a more fruitful occupation. I feel strongly that you're meant to someday take over as the director of the True Vine Baptist choir."

I don't see anything sinful about singing in a ballroom. Time and time again, I have tried to tell the reverend that to deny me the opportunity to present my vocal abilities to a dance-floor crowd is to trap my God-given gifts under a butterfly net. To me, that is a sin.

Everyone in town knows that Hibernia Lee Tyson is going straight to the top. And you can bet your bottom dollar that I have the talent to take me there.

Other than the reverend, there are only two things holding me back. One is my age. I've just turned twelve, which is way too young for the Savoy. But I'm taller than most boys my age, and strong, too. And when I color my cheeks with face powder and use NuNile pomade to smooth my hair, I can pass for being a grown-up lady with real singing experience.

The other thing getting in my way to fame is my stubby fingernails, which I have bitten to the quick. You can't be a big star without nice nails. People love to get singers to sign their cocktail napkins after each show. But who wants an autograph by somebody with fingertips that look like half-eaten pig's knuckles?

The nail biting is a bad habit. No matter what, I can't stop. What makes it worse is all I try that doesn't work. I soak my fingers in pickle vinegar. I sit on my hands. I pretend my nails are covered with ants. None of this helps. For the life of me, I can't find a way to quit.

But there's one thing I know for certain. If I were out front at the Savoy Ballroom, I would show everybody that Hibernia Lee Tyson can roll out a tune sweet enough to bake. The world would have to wait for news about tomorrow's Joe Louis fight while Hibernia Lee lit up the airwaves with her song.

The truth is, though, I am no closer to Harlem or the CBS Radio Network than I am to the moon. I am stuck here in slowpoke Elmira, New York, living upstairs from the True Vine Baptist Church with the Reverend C. Elias Tyson and Speaky, his radio.

Now Skip, don't get me wrong—I'm truly rooting for Joe. So is everybody I know. But Not-Happy Hibernia will turn back into Happy Hibernia by listening to Swing Time at the Savoy. Without interruptions.

But, all right. Seeing as tomorrow is Joe's big night, I guess all I can do is wait. And hope on Joe. And meanwhile, curse you, Skip Gibson, for stomping on my Savoy!


MAMA, SHE TOLD ME TO LEAVE HOME. And it's just as well, I swear.

I couldn't stay unless Sampson hit the road for good. Sampson—what a lame excuse for a daddy. Uh-huh, that's Sampson. Nothin' but a sorry sack.

Even after all this time, Lila and the bleach man don't know I ain't like the rest of the orphans here at Mercy. That I got a mother and a father, and an address different from this place.

Thing is, though, the house where Mama and Sampson live ain't a real true home. Far as I can tell, you don't get burnt in a real home. Your daddy don't curse at your mama in a real home. In a real true home, your mama don't cry herself to sleep, and neither do you.

I get to thinking about Sampson and Mama every time I look at my Saint Christopher medal. And with Joe Louis about to step in the ring, I keep Saint Christopher close as ever. That medal's one of the only things I can say's all mine. Soon as I came here and unpacked my croker sack, Saint Christopher fell out on the floor, chain and all. Before then, the medal ain't seen much of the light of day.

I remember when Mama gave me Saint Christopher. Was my tenth birthday, near to three years back now. Mama, she'd put the little medal in a big box. Covered it all in brown paper. Uh-huh, Mama, she's good with making things special.

When I unwrapped the paper and opened the box, the medal was pushed under more crumpled bunches. Wasn't till I dug in the paper and found the small gift, that Mama explained, "It's a Saint Christopher medal. It protects travelers, especially young people, on their journeys."

I turned the little medal over and over in my hand. "Protecting people," I say. "Uh-huh, I like that."

Mama say, "And seeing as Saint Christopher was such an important man, I felt he should be housed in a mighty place. That's why I wrapped him so carefully for you, Willie."

When Mama slipped the medal's chain around my neck, Sampson, he started laughing. To him, the whole thing was just so funny. "Why you giving the boy a sissy thing like that?" He was sniffing when he say it. Talking like somethin' smells bad. "How's the boy ever gonna get respect if he's wearing a necklace?"

Sampson gave the medal a tug. Yanked my neck forward at the same time. "I guess you can use all the help you can get, Willie-bo." That's what Sampson called me, Willie-bo. He even liked turning my name into some kind of joke, funny only to him. That's why I couldn't never make myself call my father Pa. What kind of father laughs at his own son's name? Uh-huh, that's stupid, ain't it?

Sampson tugged on the medal again. I turned away from him quick. "When I was a boxer," Sampson say, "my coach told me to get a good-luck charm."

Half the time Sampson spoke, he started by saying, "When I was a boxer…"

But you ain't no boxer now, my mind's whispering.

"When I was a boxer, I should've listened to my coach and got me that good-luck charm. Maybe I never would've been saddled with a kid," Sampson say.

Mama, who was busy collecting the brown gift wrap, she flinched.

Sampson wouldn't let up. "Willie-bo, if it weren't for you, I'd still be boxing today—might even be a champ, instead of a outta-work bum with two mouths to feed and a sissy kid who likes wearing jewelry."

"Hush up, Sampson," Mama say. "That medal is a sign of strength."

With the way Sampson's talking about me being a sissy, I wouldn't let myself pay that medal a second thought. I stuffed that sissy thing way far back in my clothes crate, behind my moth-eaten socks.

I kept the brown paper the medal came in, though. Uh-huh, kept it. Later, after Sampson had went out drinking, I wrapped the paper around each of my fists, and did me a pair of play boxing gloves. I remember thinkin', Scrap Sampson. Maybe someday I can be a champ.

Them gloves was big brown slammers, just like Joe's. Paper dukes that made me feel like a boxing king. Made me wish I had a roaring right fist same like Joe Louis's so's I could knock Sampson out in one punch and leave him wishing he never do mess with Mama or me.

That same night, Mama told me what to do with my Saint Christopher medal. "Tell it your dreams."

Nowadays seems all I do is what Mama say. I whisper my secrets to Saint Christopher. And I wish on that medal every chance I get. Even if it is for sissies, it makes me feel good to do it.

I tell Saint Christopher that though I'm long gone from Sampson and Mama's house, I wish Sampson would fall headfirst off the face of the world. And I hope Mama will wake up one day and see Sampson for the sorry sack he is.

Today, since I'm hoping hard already, I won't pass up a chance to put in a good word for Joe.

My wish is short. But uh-huh, I mean it:

Let Joe win!



Why did the cookie go to the hospital?

What lays at the bottom of the ocean and shakes?

If riddles could march, tonight would be a riddle parade.

Here they come again. One riddle after another, in a happy line.

They sure are loud this time, a brass-and-drum band pounding inside my head. Playing on my mind, as if Daddy is here telling them himself.

Tonight I speak right to the riddles. I call their answers out into the dark. It's like waving at friends who smile when you see them passing.

"You go on ahead, and I'll just hang around!"

"Because it felt crummy!"

"A nervous wreck!"

That's when Lila comes running. The bleach man is with her. He tries to hush me. He tells Lila, "This boy needs to quiet down. He'll wake up the other children. Is he crazy?"

Lila says, "Riddles comfort Otis. It's just a dream he's having."

The bleach man is shaking his head.

Lila's hand is pressed to her cheek. She's watching me with kind eyes. Her skin is as pink as bubble gum, and smooth under its freckles.

There's nothing smooth or pink about Mr. Sneed. He's as pale as they come. A ghost has more color than he does. That's just one of the reasons I've nicknamed him the bleach man. Like bleach, Mr. Sneed is harsh. He strips the fun out of everything.

Lila's the opposite. She isn't mean. Nobody's bleached her heart.

It's not Lila's way to hush me up. If I ask her one of my riddles, she'll try to solve it, like the last time. She'll think of silly answers, and I'll feel better.

Before I can even stump Lila with one of my riddles, they come back fast.

What did the pig say on the hot summer day?

If you cross a snowball with a shark, what do you get?

Fingers grow on what kinds of trees?

As the riddle parade marches past, I yell out the answers with all I've got.

"I'm bacon!"


"Palm trees!"

Soon the riddles are starting to go. The parade is moving off, and the riddles are gone. Gone till next time.

The thumping in my head is gone, too. But I'm hot as blazes. That's what happens when the riddles come into my dreams.

Lila lays the back of her hand to my forehead. "He's feverish," she tells the bleach man.

She takes a handkerchief from her sleeve. She dips it in the water basin, near to my cot, and wipes the little bit of wet from my face.

Lila knows I'm not crazy. Lila understands. I wish I could tell the bleach man that my mind's all my own. That even though it's near to a year, I'm still missing Ma and Daddy, is all. That sometimes Daddy's riddles still talk in my dreams, is all. Sometimes good dreams. Sometimes bad ones. And sometimes, when I answer the riddles, I feel good.

That's all. That's all there is to it. Nothing crazy about me.

It's tomorrow's fight that's making me think of Daddy. It's people saying the press will have to eat their statement that boxing will never see a Negro champion. It's the wishing on Joe Louis that's bringing memories of Daddy and Ma back to me so strong.

Daddy believed in Joe. Joe was Daddy's hope.

Daddy believed in me, too. We made a deal, Daddy and me. We shook on a promise.

Now Joe is my hope. My promise.

If Daddy were here, he'd be putting his all on Joe. He'd be saying a different kind of riddle. He'd be asking a question that won't be a question come tomorrow.

What's set to explode while the whole world waits?

The Brown Bomber.



"Are not," I insist.

My belly is flat to the rug and I'm flipping and folding pages from the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. Like always, the reverend is wearing on my nerves. When we talk, I am saying one thing and thinking another.

"Sears, Roebuck has only the finest merchandise," I say.

"Fine for gallivanting." The reverend can't help but declare things.

Fine for gallivanting, I mimic silently.

I point to a lovely dress with a lace collar and pearly buttons, something you'd see coming in the door of the True Vine Baptist Church on a Sunday morning.

I say, "There's even a rosette on the front. A rosette is not for gallivanting."

I think, And how would you know about any lady of the night? You hardly ever go out past sundown.

"Bernie, those catalogs are trouble," the reverend says. "They invite craving. And besides, we cannot afford such things."

"Dreaming don't cost a dime," I say.

The reverend is leaning hard over me. "Dreaming doesn't cost a dime," he corrects. "If you ever want the finer things, you'll need to speak properly."

"You're blocking the light," I snap.

"Hibernia, you are hardheaded."

I don't say anything.

I think, Your head is ten times thicker than mine.

The reverend says, "Close that catalog, and turn your thoughts to spiritual ideas."

I don't budge. The reverend says, "Is there cotton in your ears, child?"

I flip the catalog closed.

I think, How did I get a father like you?

I huff, "I've shut the book. See?"

I think, You are straighter than a broomstick and more obstinate than most mules.

But I won't give up on the catalog so easy. I quickly turn it open to where there are clothes for men. "Look, here's something you might like, a vest with a little pocket for your watch. See the fancy writing on the page—'Fine Attire for a Man of Distinction.' "

The reverend says, "A true man of distinction doesn't need clothing to prove his merit."

But the reverend is taking a good look at that vest. He even lifts his eyes over the top of his spectacles to see it better.

Before we can butt heads any harder, the reverend slips his fingers into his trouser pocket and pulls out his watch. He looks at the watch's face, then snaps shut the cover, not even bothering to tell me the time.

When he says, "I must retreat to the vestry," I know it's eight o'clock. The reverend is eager to turn on his radio.

"Yes," I say, "time for the vestry."

I think, I may be hardheaded, but you are bull-minded when it comes to listening to that radio.

I say good night.

"Good night, Bernie," says the reverend. "Don't stay up too late." He is gone so fast he doesn't even notice that I still have the Sears, Roebuck catalog wide open.

When I hear the crackly radio static coming from the vestry, I know the reverend will not show himself again tonight.

He once told me that he uses his radio only to listen to President Roosevelt's fireside chats. That the radio was "given in God's name," and that his only reason for even accepting the gift from his congregation was "as a means for keeping abreast of the nation."

But honey, that is a bunch of hooey. The reverend is hooked on his Zenith. He insists on listening to Speaky every night, without fail. And it isn't often that I hear the president chatting by the fire on that radio.

The truth is, the straight-and-stubborn Reverend C. Elias Tyson has a thing for swing music and the blues. Most nights he tunes in to Swing Time at the Savoy, coming live from Harlem.

I go back to my catalog, flipping, folding, dreaming. There are flannel shirts, aprons, long johns, and lingerie. The lingerie is my favorite. All that lace. All those flounces.

When I get to the section marked Sensible Dresses for Growing Girls, I flip past fast. I don't waste time with any girl clothes. I need a woman's wardrobe.

I get to page seventy-two, Ladies' Evening Wear. The heading says, "For Nights on the Town, and for the Hours that Follow."

There is silk all over this page. There is a pair of shoes made of good leather, with a dance heel and a pretty lattice ankle strap. There's even a fur stole and a hat with feathers. Oh, how I wish the drawings were in color!

I tear out the page with the dance-heel shoes. I tuck it in the bib of my pinafore. These are my shoes. I save this page for later, when I will stare and stare at my dance heels, and not spend a dime doing it.

With Sears, Roebuck tucked under one arm, I make my way to bed. When I pass the vestry, I press my ear to the door.

As sure as my name is Hibernia Lee Tyson, I hear what I always hear—the reverend's sermon room secret: Duke Ellington and His Orchestra performing live from Harlem.

I believe the reverend fancies Swing Time at the Savoy because he still has feelings for my mother. I would bet a bottle full of dimes that the reverend is drawn to the Savoy's music because he's listening hard for Pauline, trying to somehow catch a hint of her among Duke's orchestra.

Tonight, though, the reverend gives Duke only a short listen. He soon turns his radio dial to a fight between Joe Louis, the Negro boxer, and Max Schmeling, the former heavyweight champ.

Everybody and their brother is talking about Joe. For gracious' sakes, there are a trillion other things to speak on—like what happens to the fur on a stole when it gets wet from when it snows. But stoles and snow are not even part of the Joe conversation. The only thing folks are talking about is that this will be the fight to end all fights. And nobody seems to care about the tough times we're in, either. People are putting down their last little bit of money, betting on Joe Louis. Boo to that! If I had any cash of my own, I'd be sending it to Sears.

With all the talk in town, I can't help but wonder what the big deal is. So tonight I listen carefully as Speaky speaks.

All I can hear is the voice of Skip Gibson, the boxing commentator, filling up the reverend's tiny room. "Joe Louis looks overconfident and underweight. Max is coming on strong against the Brown Bomber!… But wait—Joe throws a right! He lands one hard on Max!"

The strangest thing flings from the reverend's room. It's a whoop, coming out from under the crack of light that draws a line between the door of the vestry and me.

Then a second holler comes louder: "Slam him, Joe! Make us proud, boy!"

There is no mistaking that voice. It's not Skip Gibson roaring out from the radio. Those shouts belong to the reverend. So does the thunder of his foot stomps.


On Sale
Feb 14, 2012
Page Count
288 pages

Andrea Davis Pinkney

About the Author

Andrea Davis Pinkney is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of nearly 50 books for young readers, among them The Red Pencil and A Poem for Peter, as well as several collaborations with her husband Brian Pinkney, including Sit – In and Hand in Hand, which received the Coretta Scott King Book Award.

Brian Pinkney has illustrated numerous books for children, including two Caldecott Honor books, and he has written and illustrated several of his own books. Brian has received the Coretta Scott King Book Award for Illustration and three Coretta Scott King Book Award Honor medals.

The Pinkneys have been named among the "25 Most Influential People in Our Children's Lives" by Children's Health magazine. They live in Brooklyn, New York.

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