The Great Depression was a difficult era for most everyone in the United States, but doubly so for African Americans, who were dealing not only with economic hardship but racial discrimination as well. One bright spot during this period came from the success of boxing great Joe Louis, who won the heavyweight championship in a thrilling match in 1937.
Children’s author Andrea Davis Pinkney was inspired by a family photo to research this era and Louis’ pivotal role in it. This research even inspired the author to put on a pair of boxing gloves herself. The result is a captivating new novel for young readers, Bird in a Box, which sees the events of 1937 through the eyes of three children in upstate New York.
From her home in Brooklyn, Pinkney (whose husband is illustrator Brian Pinkney) answered questions for BookPage about the new book and how it came to be.
Why was Joe Louis such an important figure for African Americans in the 1930s and ’40s?
When Joe Louis came onto the boxing scene, he symbolized tremendous hope for African Americans. Joe was boxing at a time when black folks in America were still considered second-class citizens, and when segregation was still a sad reality. But in boxing, one’s ability to swing hard in the ring has nothing to do with the color of their skin. Louis’s pounding punches showed the world that a black mother’s son had superior abilities.On the night Barack Obama won the presidential election, there was an overwhelming pride that welled in the hearts of many people. There was cheering in the streets. Tears of joy came to the faces of grown men. A black man had made momentous progress toward social change. This same pride and elation filled the night of June 22, 1937, when Joe Louis, “the Brown Bomber,” became the heavyweight champion of the world.
Is there a specific message you hope young readers will take from this book?
More than anything, I’d like young readers to know that even when it feels like life is giving you a beating, there’s always hope around what may at first look like a very dark corner.
What is the one thing you would tell a child growing up in hard times?
As Willie’s mama says in Bird in a Box, “Don’t give up five minutes ‘fore a miracle happens.”
What was the most exciting part of your research for Bird in a Box?
The research for Bird in a Box began at a family reunion with an archival photograph of my great-grandfather, Cyclone Williams, who, as a kid, was an amateur boxer with dreams of becoming a champ. My Bird in a Box character, kid-boxer Willie Martel, is based on Cyclone. The antique photograph belonged to my grandmother, Marjorie Frances Williams, Cyclone’s daughter. The photo was one of her most beloved possessions, and one she seldom let out of her hands.
The picture has a beautiful, haunting quality to it. This is what sparked the idea for the novel. I knew very little about Cyclone before I discovered the picture of him, but my grandmother and mother told me colorful stories about his life and times. To piece together the details of Cyclone’s boxing career, I called on Rachel Dworkin, archivist at the Booth Library, Chemung County Historical Society. My cousin Larry, a historian and newspaperman, also helped by sharing information about Cyclone.
In the photograph owned by my grandmother, it was Cyclone’s determined gaze and solid stature that encouraged me to research everything I could find about the history of boxing and about Joe Louis’s record in the ring. I also spent countless hours in the audio archives at New York’s Paley Center for Media, listening to radio commentary of actual Joe Louis boxing matches. Much of this sports commentary appears in the novel.
To really capture the essence of the book, though, I realized I needed to put on a pair of boxing gloves from the 1930s and get into the ring. That’s when I bought myself a pair of vintage Spalding boxing gloves, got myself a boxing trainer and went to work. Through becoming a boxer myself—and feeling the sting in my knuckles and wrists from speed-punching a peanut bag, working on jab-hook-cross fist combinations, and being knocked toward the ropes—I inhabited the souls of my characters.
The radio is the center around which the characters in Bird in a Box revolve, and it connects them for a number of reasons. Did you grow up with a similar connection in your family or community?
Family has always been important to me, and for this book especially, my family played a key role. Once I’d discovered the photo of my great-grandfather, Cyclone Williams, the family stories about him and life during the Great Depression began to flow.My Aunt Rosa shared recollections and family heirlooms from the 1930’s. These added color and detail to my story.
My cousin Larry, the historian, has a wonderful use of language and a very distinct central New York dialect, which I used in crafting my characters’ voices.
My dad, the late Philip J. Davis, told me about the clothes he wore as a child growing up. He shared memories of scrapple eaten at sparse dinner tables, his family’s ice box, and how, as a kid growing up during the 1930s, he took his Saturday night baths in a tin tub set out on the kitchen floor of his tumbledown house. These details are also in the novel.
The one prevailing aspect to all of these family memories is the power of broadcasting, and how Joe Louis's boxing matches spilled into the living rooms of my own family members, and into homes throughout America from the speakers of Philco and Zeniths radios.
This story is set in Elmira, New York, a small town in central New York where your own family has its roots. Have you spent much time in Elmira and did you revisit the area during your research for the book?
As the town where my parents grew up, met and married—and where their extended families still live—Elmira holds a special warmth for me. While writing and researching Bird in a Box, I enjoyed every opportunity possible to just be in the town where my great-grandfather Cyclone was known by the locals as “Elmira’s sensational battler.” While in Elmira I would enjoy the musicality of the speech patterns of my aunts and cousins, watch their mannerisms, observe the ways they interact with each other and listen to them laugh and carry on about life during the Great Depression. In addition to being the home of my extended family, Elmira, New York, was the summer retreat home for Mark Twain. Elmira is the town where Twain did some of his best and most prolific writing. As such, Elmira has its own unique history, and sometimes feels like a place from yesteryear.
If you could live in another era, what would it be?
I was born in the era that is one of my favorites—the 1960s. This is why I still wear an Afro!
What’s the best thing about writing for young people?
Writing for young people is like being a magician of sorts. One of the best things about this is that, as an author, I’m always striving to create what I call “Book Magic.”
Book Magic is the precise moment, or word, or paragraph, or page that—poof!—like magic—draws a reader in and lifts him or her away to a new place and time. Book Magic is so powerful that it inspires kids to keep reading—and, like magic—casts a spell on me that makes me want to keep writing.