Allow us to reveal the recipe for a literary juggernaut. Mix together one part autobiography, one part romance, and one part adventure. Simmer over adversity for an hour and filter through the eyes of a precocious young girl who will to grow up to be one of the most important literary voices alive. And there you have it: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Let's start at the beginning. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was written in 1969 by Maya Angelou. You might have heard of her. She recited poetry at President Bill Clinton's inauguration, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, and dominated the New York Times Bestseller list for two years. You might say she is Very Important People. But Caged Bird covers Angelou's life before she was a VIP, back when she was just little ol' Marguerite Johnson from Stamps, Arkansas.
The novel was released to both critical acclaim and widespread censorship as a new story about black female life with some majorly frank descriptions of sexuality. Between Toni Morrison and Oprah, we're pretty used to hearing stories about awesome black women these days. But at the time, no one had read anything like Caged Bird. It was kind of like before Avatar when no one made movies in 3D, or before Real World when reality TV hadn't yet conquered the world.
There are five other books in her series of autobiographies, but Caged Bird introduces us to the themes for which she is now famous: race, femininity, independence, identity, community, family, and travel. Oh, and it also shows off her literary chops.
So how did this fabulous new thing get written? It was a dare. That's right, Angelou's editor Robert Loomis was trying to get the then-poet to write a book. When she refused, he said, "It's just as well, because to write an autobiography as literature is just about impossible" (source). Angelou took the bait and locked herself in a room with a pen, paper, and a bottle of sherry for two years (source). When she finally emerged, Caged Bird was by her side. Ta-da!
We hate to say, "you should care because this book is important." But you should care because this book is important. Really important.
When Maya Angelou's autobiography hit the stands, it resonated with the zeitgeist (that's a fancy German word for the spirit of the time) of the United States. It had only been a few years since Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were assassinated. African Americans were still grieving over their lost leaders and working through the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, feminism began picking up steam. Yep, those "bra burners" were demanding equal rights and treatment. Since I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was a book about a black girl struggling to become an independent woman, it fit right in with the goals of the Civil Rights and Feminist movements.
Since then, the book's popularity has only grown. It has never been out of print, it's at the top of all those important-books lists, and it's pretty much on every high school reading list ever (which means you probably have to read it anyway).
Satisfied? No? Fine. If the whole important thing isn't enough for you, how about this?
We all love to root for the underdog, right? Come on, why else does anyone watch Glee? Even though slushies keep getting thrown in their faces, those kids continue being their dorky glee club selves. Caged Bird's Maya gets way too many metaphorical slushies thrown in her face, but she keeps on keepin' on. She is the underdog that makes it through the tough stuff—just like us.
Oh, hey never-felt-bad-guy! Did we mention that Caged Bird is hilarious and involves conmen, wild parties, and sex? Now stop bugging us and start reading.