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Friendship, family and love converge in 'Bird in a Box'

Three children have a lot in common: the loss of a loved one, strange dreams, and never giving up on what they want. They also share a lot of qualities with their hero, famed boxer Joe Louis. As these three lives come together, they are set on a path of trials and triumphs that echo Joe Louis' own. Here's an excerpt.

Hibernia

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 God-given 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 into Happy 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!

 

Reprinted from "Bird in a Box" by Andrea Davis Pinkney © 2011 by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Used with permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, a division of Hachette Book Group.

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