Two of America’s most distinguished figures in children’s literature combine their formidable talents to create a moving biography of the great Maya Angelou. In Maya’s Song, Newbery Honor author Renée Watson (Piecing Me Together) chronicles the pivotal milestones and emotional touchstones of Angelou’s extraordinary life in a series of lyrical free verse poems, lavishly illustrated with four-time Caldecott Honor recipient Bryan Collier’s vibrant watercolor and collage artwork. The result, like Angelou herself, is an American treasure.
In addition to plays, essays and poetry, Angelou penned seven autobiographical works, and it would be a challenge for any biographer to encompass all the details of her complex, eventful life. Watson handles this challenge easily in a 48-page picture book format.
Watson’s beautiful, heartfelt poems provide young readers with both historical and emotional context, while a concluding timeline provides factual highlights. In 1993, Angelou became the first woman and first Black person to present an original poem at a presidential inauguration. She achieved another first in 2022, when her likeness became the first portrait of a Black woman to be featured on the U.S. quarter.
Watson’s exquisite poems are enhanced by Collier’s evocative art. In his illustrator’s note, Collier (All Because You Matter) invites readers to examine the way he uses color, especially blue, to illuminate Angelou’s tumultuous childhood, which included a devastating sexual assault by her mother’s boyfriend. The trauma she experienced and the man’s subsequent murder left Angelou mute for five years. It’s impossible to tell Angelou’s life story without this event. Watson does so with sensitivity, telling readers that “When Maya was seven years old, / her mother’s boyfriend / hurt her body, hurt her soul,” placing the focus on Angelou’s recovery through literature, poetry and the love of her family, especially her grandmother and brother.
Angelou was many things: a poet, a dancer, a singer, a world traveler, an award-winning author and a civil rights activist who counted figures such as James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. as friends. Most of all, she was an inspiration. In her author’s note, Watson describes being moved to tears the first time she heard Angelou speak. “I have held Maya Angelou’s words close to me my whole life,” she writes. “Her words guide me, heal me, inspire me.” Young readers who meet Angelou through Maya’s Song will surely look at her face on the U.S. quarter with a better understanding of the remarkable woman who earned such a tribute.