Maya Angelou and the Courage to Keep Rising by Bethany Hegedus
We women know we have always had these qualities—and now we are being sure that society knows it too. Girl power. Women power. Social activism on any level—“the personal is political”—is no longer radical. Activism is mainstream. And changes can be made not just by picking up protest signs. Change can be sung about, danced about, written about. Or when it comes to Maya Angelou, poet, artist, activist—it can be all three.
And that’s why girls, boys, today’s readers deserve to know more about this Phenomenal Woman. A girl who grew up, shipped off with her brother Bailey, to family with nothing more than a note tied to her wrist. A girl who endured sexual abuse, named her accuser, and went selectively mute when he was killed, worried that her voice had the power to kill. Young Maya found solace in books. She found a mentor—or a mentor found her—Mrs. Flowers, who tasked Maya with reading aloud.
It isn’t until years later Maya, the poet, the memoirist is born but it is then that Maya begins to heal the unhealable. And she does so with words.
Maya Angelou’s life—her desire to not just survive to but to thrive, to tell her story and tell it truthfully—has inspired me since I was a teenage girl who as a rite of passage read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Caged Bird celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2020. (Some sources say the book was published in 1969—but Random House is celebrating the anniversary in 2020.)
I had other obstacles, different than Maya’s. I was raised by a mother with a debilitating mental illness, but who had so much love to give—love that I absorbed like a sponge. I heard racial epithets—not directed at me—but made by people who looked like me. People I loved. Some family. Some friends. Some knowing what they said was racist and painful, some just allowing their white privilege to not let them see. It was a family member of mine who was sexually abused in childhood. Not me. It was friends. Friends of friends. Not me—so lucky it was not me.
Colin Johnson, Maya’s grandson, writes this about Maya’s childhood in the foreword of RISE! FROM CAGED BIRD TO POET OF THE PEOPLE, MAYA ANGELOU (Lee & Low/August 6, 2019):
“Childhood is often a place where the power in life belongs to the adults around you. Empathizing with the innocence of children, my grandmother believed they deserved a good start in life but also possessed the courage to endure and thrive no matter their circumstances….She would later write, ‘Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you cannot practice any other virtue consistently.’”
Women know we have these qualities. Men know it too. And because of women like Maya Angelou, brave enough to tell their stories, dance with passion, sing with gusto, and act on the behalf of ALL, we each have the opportunity to rise. To free ourselves from society’s cages.
We have the power to speak.
The power to heal.
The power to read.
The power to share a book with the exact child who needs it, at the time they need it most.
Writing RISE! FROM CAGED BIRD TO POET OF THE PEOPLE, MAYA ANGELOU and seeing the exquisite art by Tonya Engel, depicting Maya’s incredibly full and resonant life, and how Tonya brought her full self, and her full womanhood to the book, has touched me. Deeply.
Come August, open its pages, and let Maya inspire you to RISE again and again.
Rise: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou, written by Bethany Hegedus and illustrated by Tonya Engel, will be released by Lee & Low Books on August 6, 2019. Get a first peek with our cover reveal below:
BETHANY HEGEDUS is an award-winning author of picture books and middle-grade novels, including Grandfather Gandhi and Alabama Spitfire. A former educator, she teaches widely and enjoys mentoring young writers. Hegedus is owner and creative director of the Writing Barn, a writing workshop and retreat center. She lives with her family in Austin, Texas. You can find her online at www.bethanyhegedus.com and on Twitter at @bethanyhegedus