Skip to main content



Bird in a Box


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 Godgiven 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 intoHappy 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 can be achamp.

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 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!

Excerpted from BIRD IN A BOX © Copyright 2011 by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Sean Qualls. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.

Bird in a Box
by by Andrea Davis Pinkney

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 0316074020
  • ISBN-13: 9780316074025