I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been called a Bildungsroman or coming-of-age story. Although Caged Bird is an autobiography, critic Mary Jane Lupton compares it to George Eliot's novel The Mill on the Floss. According to Lupton, the two books share the following similarities: a focus on young strong-willed heroines who have solid relationships with their brothers, an examination of the role of literature in life, and an emphasis on the importance of family and community life. Like Richard Wright's Native Son, the protagonist in Caged Bird serves as an example of how a young African American can survive. As critic Susan Gilbert states, Angelou was reporting not one person's story, but the collective's. Scholar Selwyn R. Cudjoe agrees, and sees Angelou as representative of the convention in African-American autobiography as a public gesture that speaks for an entire group of people.
Angelou made a deliberate attempt while writing Caged Bird to challenge the usual structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre. Her use of fiction-writing techniques such as dialogue, characterization, and thematic development often lead reviewers to categorize her books as autobiographical fiction. Lupton insists that all of Angelou's autobiographies conform to the genre's standard structure: they are written by a single author, they are chronological, and they contain elements of character, technique, and theme. In a 1983 interview with African-American literature critic Claudia Tate, Angelou calls her books autobiographies.
"During the months she spent writing the book, [Angelou] practically withdrew from the world. She'd set the bar high. Her ambition was to write a book that would honor the Black experience and affirm the 'human spirit.' She more than achieved her goal. She wrote a coming-of-age story that has become a modern classic".–Marcia Ann Gillespie, 2008
When speaking of her use of autobiography, Angelou acknowledges that she has followed the slave narrative tradition of "speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying I meaning 'we'". She uses the first-person narrative voice customary with autobiographies, but also includes fiction-like elements, told from the perspective of a child that is "artfully recreated by an adult narrator". She uses two distinct voices, the adult writer and the child who is the focus of the book, whom Angelou calls "the Maya character". Angelou reports that maintaining the distinction between herself and the Maya character is "damned difficult", but "very necessary". Scholar Liliane Arensberg suggests that Angelou "retaliates for the tongue-tied child's helpless pain" by using her adult self's irony and wit.
Angelou recognizes that there are fictional aspects to her books – she tends to "diverge from the conventional notion of autobiography as truth". Angelou can be placed in the long tradition of African-American autobiography while creating a unique interpretation of the autobiographical form. In a 1998 interview with journalist George Plimpton, Angelou discussed her writing process, and "the sometimes slippery notion of truth in nonfiction" and memoirs. When asked if she changed the truth to improve her story, she stated, "Sometimes I make a diameter from a composite of three or four people, because the essence in only one person is not sufficiently strong to be written about." Although Angelou has never admitted to changing the facts in her stories, she has used these facts to make an impact with the reader. As Hagen states, "One can assume that 'the essence of the data' is present in Angelou's work". Hagen also states that Angelou "fictionalizes, to enhance interest". Angelou's editor, Robert Loomis, agrees, stating that she could rewrite any of her books by changing the order of her facts to make a different impact on the reader.
Scholar Joanne M. Braxton sees Caged Bird as a representative example of the autobiographies written by African-American women in the years following the civil rights movement. The book presents themes that are common in autobiography by Black American women: a celebration of Black motherhood; a criticism of racism; the importance of family; and the quest for independence, personal dignity, and self-definition. Angelou introduces a unique point of view in American autobiography by revealing her life story through a narrator who is a Black female from the South, at some points a child, and other points a mother. Writer Hilton Als calls Angelou one of the "pioneers of self-exposure", willing to focus honestly on the more negative aspects of her personality and choices. For example, Angelou was worried about her readers' reactions to her disclosure in her second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, that she was a prostitute. She went through with it, anyway, after her husband Paul Du Feu advised her to be honest about it.