I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first of seven volumes of Maya Angelou's autobiography, which cover the years from the early 1930's, up until about 1970. Out of the seven, it is probably the most popular and critically acclaimed volume, dealing with Angelou's childhood, up to her coming-of-age at sixteen. All of her volumes center around the themes of family, self-discovery, and motherhood, though in terms of writing style and plot each of them is different. Maya's mother Vivian Baxter and her son Guy, born at the end of this book, are also central figures throughout Angelou's life story.
As an autobiography, Caged Bird adheres to many conventions of the genre; it features first-person narration, is organized chronologically, and is focused on the development of the self. However, Angelou also uses many stylistic elements more common to fiction works, like dialogue, fully fleshed-out characters, and close description of sensory details from her past. The work could also be thought of as combining fictional techniques with autobiography since the story is told by an adult, who is recreating a childlike voice and point of view for the novel. The many vivid descriptions and recreations of Angelou's early life in this volume also beg the question of how Angelou could manage to remember such tiny details from her childhood well enough to reconstruct them in the book.
Angelou wrote this autobiography for several reasons; one was as a reminder not to give in during the trials of growing up. Angelou has said, "somebody needs to tell young people, listen, I did this and I did that. You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated." Caged Bird is sometimes considered essential reading for young students, and is on many required reading lists; however, the book has also proved controversial, because of its honest depictions of sexuality and Angelou's discussion of being raped as a child. This book was written in the early 1970's, at a time when autobiographies of women, and particularly black women, were a way of asserting the importance of women's lives, and examining issues of particular importance to women. Angelou's book, although it is meant for a broad audience, is also concerned with conveying the difficulties of being black and a woman in America. Angelou addresses these issues in such a way that they appeal to all her readers for understanding, and also speak to the particular segment of her audience that she represents.