I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

On HPHS Approved Book List
Currently used in Freshman English I Pre AP as Recommended for Required Outside Reading (Typical Age 14-15)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the 1969 autobiography about the early years of African-American writer and poet Maya Angelou. It is a widely acclaimed book that may or may not be appropriate as approved reading in a high school classroom.

This book was recently added to the freshman curriculum for 2014-2015 after the English Department audited their curriculum, books and selection process in Summer 2014 and after parents raised concerns about age appropriate literature selections.

The inclusion of this book on the HPHS Approved Book List, without a text rationale and without offering parental consent, shows how the current literature policies create obstacles to allowing parents to make informed decisions.

As of October 14, 2014, no parental consent is required for this book.

As of October 14, 2014, the text rationale for this book says:


We believe the district should publish a complete rationale in cases like this. Click here to see district criteria for a text rationale.


“Mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman lived with us… His breasts used to embarrass me… they lay on his chest like flat titties.”

“…. On particularly bad nights my mother would take me in to sleep with her, in the large bed with Mr. Freeman…One morning she got out of bed for an early errand… I awoke to a pressure, a strange feeling on my left leg… I knew, as if I had always known, it was his ‘thing’ on my leg…”

“He said, ‘Just stay right here… I ain’t gonna hurt you.’…

Of course I knew that lots of people did ‘it’ and they used their ‘things’ to accomplish the deed, but no one I knew had ever done it to anybody.   Mr. Freeman pulled me to him, and put his hand between my legs…”

“He threw back the blankets and his ‘thing’ stood up like a brown ear of corn. He took my hand and said ‘Feel it’.  It was mushy and squirmy like the inside of a freshly killed chicken.  Then he dragged me on top of his chest with his left arm, and his right hand was moving so fast and his heart was beating so hard that I was afraid that he would die… I wondered if Mr. Freeman died holding me how I would ever get free.  Would they have to break his arms to get me loose?  Finally he was quiet, and then came the nice part. He held me so softly that I wished he wouldn’t ever let me go or let anything bad happen to me.  This was probably my real father and we had found each other at last.  But then he rolled over, leaving me in a wet place and stood up.”


“Now, this ain’t gonna hurt you much.  You liked it before, didn’t you?’ …

His legs were squeezing my waist.  ‘Pull down your drawers.’ …

‘We was just playing before.’  He released me enough to snatch down my bloomers, and then he dragged me closer to him.  Turning the radio up loud, too loud, he said, ‘If you scream, I’m gonna kill you.  And if you tell, I’m gonna kill Bailey.’…

“Then there was the pain.  A breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart.  The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t.  The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot.”


“She simply shifted her weight and did a hand stand.  Here dirty bare feet and long legs went straight for the sky.  Her dress fell down around her shoulders, and she had on no drawers.  The slick pubic air made a brown triangle where her legs came together.”


“Well…well?  Have you got crabs? Since I didn’t know what they were, that puzzled me.  I thought I might have them and it wouldn’t go well for my side if I said I didn’t.  On the other hand, I just might not have them, and suppose I lied and said I did?  “I don’t know, Mother.” 

“Do you itch?  Does your vagina itch? She leaned on one elbow and jabbed out her cigarette.  “No, mother.”  “Then you don’t have crabs.  If you had them, you’d tell the world.”


“Up the hill from our house, and on the same side of the street, lived two handsome brothers.  They were easily the most eligible young men in the neighborhood.  If I was going to venture into sex, I saw no reason why I shouldn’t make my experiment with the best of the lot… I put the plan into action.  “Hey.”  I plunged, “Would you like to have sexual intercourse with me?” Things were going according to the chart.  His mouth hung open like a garden gate.  I had the advantage and so I pressed it. 

He asked, “You mean, you’re going to give me some trim?”  I assured him that that was exactly what I was about to give him….”

I had anticipated long soulful tongued kisses and gentle caresses.  But there was no romance in the knee which forced my legs, nor in the rub of hairy skin on my chest.  Unredeemed by shared tenderness, the time was spent in laborious gropings, pullings, yankings and jerkings. Not one word was spoken.  My partner showed that our experience had reached its climax by getting up abruptly.