Review of the book by Maya Angelou ‘I know why the caged bird sings’

Review of the book by Maya Angelou ‘I know why the caged bird sings’

I was first entranced by this writer when I read her poem of the same name. She captured exactly the feelings that a trapped bird ( or person) might feel.

Thus, when I approached her first of six autobiographical novels I was looking forward to it. I was not disappointed. This writer knew how to engage the reader with smooth flowing, evocative text. Never did I stumble over awkward phrases, yet anyone who is a stickler for ‘correct grammar’ or literary language could easily have felt disappointed. It was obvious that the writer knew her grammar and vocabulary, so much so, that the vocabulary reflected perfectly the voice of the author as a child and the language was shaped to create the unique, expressive and almost breathless thoughts of an imaginative child. It was always easy to picture this young black girl growing up – a girl, like any other girl of any colour, would feel the same in the circumstances and colourful background she described. The characters lit up the page. I felt I really knew Momma who had so much to do with bringing up Maya, especially in the love she gave that child and in her pride and competence that helped so much to shape Maya’s early life and thinking – thinking that was not always in agreement. Maya’s allegiance and affection for her brother and her reaction to her negligent parents were vivid. She did not see her parents as ‘negligent’, they were who they were and she accepted them as such. Many bland descriptions of Maya’s background led me to expect a text full of terror, anger and horrific drama. However, although her experience of rape was dreadful indeed, her description was couched in words of puzzlement, guilt and the helplessness of immature feelings not fully understood. This text reinforced the notion that nothing is always clear cut. There are many aspects to a situation.

This book was not only a testament to the ill-treatment of the blacks by the whites, but there were often moments of joy, love and triumph that demonstrated the capability of Maya’s people. Her determination and success in becoming the first black worker on the San Francisco trams was symbolic.

This was a most enjoyable and moving book that I highly recommend.


A look at May Angelou’s style.

Looking at the first words of the novel, I realized why I enjoyed her style so much:


Two incomplete lines of a poem begin the text. Why? We are immediately curious. Then we are immersed suddenly into the complex thoughts of an intelligent little girl. She hadn’t so much ‘forgotten’ the poem as her mind had been overtaken with other, more ‘important’ things. This profound thought is reinforced by the following moving description:

‘The truth of the statement was like a wadded-up handkerchief, sopping wet in my fists’. We can picture her, empathize with her embarrassment and know that we are about to share the life of a child who reminds us of our own childhood and all the misconceptions, childish beliefs and embarrassing moments that crowded our own young lives.  

Instead of merely stating that all she could think of was her lovely new dress and how her hopes that everyone would be very impressed were no dashed, she says:

‘The dress I wore was lavender taffeta, and each time I breathed it rustled, and now that I was sucking in air to breathe out shame it sounded like crepe paper on the back of hearses.’

Her great dreams of admiration for her in her new dress are shattered because she has ruined her moment of fame and could not bring herself to say all the words of the poem she was supposed to.

This is a prime example of how much of Maya Angelou’s prose is sheer poetry. Here, in the opening of this book, the strong metaphor in ‘breathe out shame’ and the rather dramatic simile ‘sounded like crepe paper on the back of hearses’ fit exactly with the exaggerated immediacy of a child’s vivid imagination and heightened emotions.


I am certainly one big fan of this writer!  



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One Response to “Review of the book by Maya Angelou ‘I know why the caged bird sings’”

  1. M T McGuire Says:

    I would probably take forever to read it but it sounds brilliant.

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