RISE! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou – PPBF & Black History Month

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Title: Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou

Author: Bethany Hegedus

Illustrator: Tonya Engel

 Publisher: Lee & Low Books, 2019

Ages: 9-18

Themes: poetry, freedom, biography, black history month, poet, author, African American, civil rights, modern American writers

Genre: biography


The train looms
a mass of metal
and steel.
Maya and her brother, Bailey,
hold hands.
Like luggage they have been packed
and shipped
off to Stamps, Arkansas.
Their bellies rumble;
strangers feed them
cold ham and a biscuit.

Bailey, a year older,
offers Maya comfort.
is voice a lullaby,
his skin a warm blanket, 
is smile rocks and reassures.
The train chugs south;
the future is yet to be.


Writer, activist, trolley car conductor, dancer, mother, and humanitarian–Maya Angelou’s life was marked by transformation and perseverance. In this comprehensive picture-book biography geared towards older readers, Bethany Hegedus lyrically traces Maya’s life from her early days in Stamps, Arkansas through her work as a freedom fighter to her triumphant rise as a poet of the people. A foreword by Angelou’s grandson, Colin A. Johnson, describes how a love of literature and poetry helped young Maya overcome childhood trauma and turn adversity into triumph. Coupled with Tonya Engel’s metaphorical and emotive illustrations, this biography beautifully conveys the heartaches and successes of this truly phenomenal woman, and is a powerful tribute to the written word. (publisher)

Why I like this book:

2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and this picture book biography begins by relating much of the content of Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, then continues to trace her life through young adulthood, her varied career, activism, publishing success, triumphant reading at Bill Clinton’s inauguration, to the end of her life. The last page, which shows a girl watching a bird and ribbons of Angelou’s verse twining out of an open book to surround her, suggests the legacy of this great poet and activist.

The lavish vibrant illustrations and lyrical writing of this work are carefully chosen and combined to reflect the subject. Readers will linger and explore the details of the art on the page after reading the text. Rise! does not shy away from the harsh realities of Maya Angelou’s life, including racism, lynchings, childhood abuse, and political strife, but the prose is carefully not explicit about these difficult experiences, making this biography acceptable to upper elementary students. Middle and High schoolers who may be ready to read Angelou’s memoir will enjoy more background about her life.

One of my favorite lines is,
Maya discovers a voice that is as gravelly and gritty, as jubilant and joyous on the page as it is on the stage.”

Tonya Engel’s acrylic and oil artwork is a powerful match to the text. It is bold and bright, with outstanding poetic imagery.

A foreword by Angelou’s grandson, Colin A. Johnson, describes how a love of literature and poetry helped young Maya overcome childhood trauma and turn adversity into triumph. I think students will appreciate how this powerful tribute and how finding your voice is a journey that needs time to show you all of its complexity.


Five pages of back matter include a quote from Angelou, a timeline of her life and 4 pages of photos of Angelou at various stages of her life, a note from the author with suggestions of resources for people affected by sexual violence, a selected bibliography, and a list of sources for quotations in the story.

The NMAAHC features Angelou’s poetry. A great opportunity if you are in Washington D.C.

This would be tremendous to share with a group of high school students at the beginning of a study of the works of Angelou, modern American writers, or Civil Rights and of course for Black History Month.

Each week a group of bloggers reviews picture books we feel would make great educational reads. To help teachers, caregivers and parents, we have included resources and/or activities with each of our reviews. A complete list of the thousands of books we have reviewed can be found sorted alphabetically and by topics, here on Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

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10 Responses to RISE! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou – PPBF & Black History Month

  1. Joanna, your post about this picture book of Maya Angelou is fantastic. I love that you included the video of the author and illustrator, sharing their journey to create this treasure. Knowing the story behind creating the illustrations makes this book that much more meaningful for me. Thank you.

  2. Gabrielle Snyder says:

    I can’t wait to read this lyrical, inspiring, and important story. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I love this book! And I love Maya Angelou and her work. Thanks for sharing these videos. I hadn’t seen the interview with Bethany and Tonya. I smiled when Tonya talked about thinking of Angelou as an “auntie.” Such a meaningful connection. The “tree” spread is one of my most favorite pieces of art work in a PB—ever. Cheers!

    • Joanna says:

      Oh, I can see you are a huge fan, Jilanne, of the creators and their subject. I was also so moved by the term “auntie’ Tonya’ used for Maya Angelou. And isn’t it special how close we can become to someone about whom we are writing?

  4. I don’t know how I’ve missed this book! I have always held Maya Angelou in high esteem. Thank you for including the videos — especially the author/illustrator’s process of capturing her story, infusing it with light and feeling like Maya is like an auntie to her. This goes to the top of my list! Everything about Maya is inspirational!

  5. Andrea Mack says:

    Wow! This book looks incredible!

  6. I love the opening. I’ve got it on hold at the library. Looking forward to reading the rest of it. Thank you.

  7. Patricia Nozell says:

    A wonderful review of a picture book biography that seems worthy of its subject. I’ve put a hold request in at my library.

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