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A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet Hardcover – January 1, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Lasky (Sugaring Time) opens her lyrical portrait of Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American woman poet, in 1761; her subject is about seven years old, huddled in the dark hold of a slave ship. The narrative evokes the child's image of her mother-whom she would never see again-performing her daily ritual to welcome the sun, a memory the girl "would treasure as if it were the most precious jewel." Lasky offers similarly intimate projections throughout, affording convincing approximations of Wheatley's intelligence and sensitivity. Arriving in Boston, the girl is purchased by Susannah Wheatley, who recognizes Phillis's intelligence and teaches her to read and write, "to prove that it was not only white people who could master languages and the arts." Imagining the girl's thoughts, the author stresses the ironies of the era, such as Phillis's taking her tea alone at a side table after reciting her poems in the parlors of Boston's "finest families." Phillis's poetry expresses sympathy for the American Revolution even as "the colonies in which Phillis lived as a slave were struggling to slip the chains of their own enslavement to England"); no American publisher will print her book, but a British publisher does. Readers hear Wheatley's own voice via a few excerpts of her poetry. Lee's (Amistad Rising) large-scale, realistic acrylic paintings emphasize Wheatley's strength and constancy amidst the turbulent tenor of her times. Young readers may not appreciate the extent of Wheatley's literary contributions, but her courage and achievement are certain to leave a strong impression. Ages 8-12.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From School Library Journal
Grade 4-6-Arriving in Boston in 1760 via slave ship when she was just 7 years old, Wheatley became a learned young woman who was writing poetry by the age of 12. "At seventeen Phillis became famous" when her poem honoring the Reverend George Whitefield was read in the Colonies and in England. Lasky's episodic account breaks the picture-book text into chapters that are sometimes fictionalized or speculative and other times explanatory as they sketch the poet's growing accomplishments, her brief trip to England, and the pre-Revolutionary War events unfolding around her. Narrated in simple staccato sentences, the opening slave ship scene emphasizes the starkness of this experience. Later explanations of historical events become more complex. Lasky draws numerous parallels between the poet's love of freedom and the patriots' cause and concludes with her hard at work writing into the night to describe her African roots to a British soldier. The author's focus is on the poet's intellectual accomplishments and the publication of her book-"the first ever written by a black American woman." Wheatley's adult life and early death are skimmed in an epilogue. Lee's handsome acrylic paintings, including a commanding cover portrait, convey a fine sense of the period. However, in the depictions of Wheatley, the young woman never changes much over the years. Except for a small number of manuscript reproductions, sources are not acknowledged. A bit vague and disconnected at times, this book fills a gap as few accounts of the legendary Wheatley are currently available for children.
Margaret Bush, Simmons College, Boston
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top customer reviews
Kathryn Lasky uses a wonderful theme of sunlight and dawn as a way to show Phyllis Wheatley shining light on the problem of slavery. This book also sets up wonderful comparisons - the idea of freedom for slaves as a parallel to freedom for the colonies is a big one. There is a very moving illustration of Phyllis invited to tea at the home of a family, and the realization that this is the family of the man who enslaved her.
The illustrations deserve a mention - they are beautiful and capture the scenery of Boston, the confinement of a slave ship, the plainness of a New England church, and the dignity of Phyllis Wheatley herself.
Extremely well done book.
Phillis Wheatley (birth name, unknown) was brought from Africa at around age 7 and purchased by the Wheatleys. Though most slaves were not educated, Phillis learned (on her own, and with the help of Susannah and others)to read and write English and other languages. As the audience for this book is young readers, the book does not go into great detail, but author Lasky doesn't talk down or cut corners on her vocabulary while using short, descriptive sentences and covering not only Phillis Wheatley's literary talent (she was the first black woman poet in America) but events from the American revolution.
A well-written introduction that won't bog young readers down, and may plant the seed for greater interest in poetry and/or biographies and/or interesting women in tween readers.
About me: I'm a middle school/high school librarian
How I got this book: sent to me by the publisher
Lasky begins her book as a young girl is kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery in America in 1761. Through the girl's eyes, Lasky describes the harrowing journey from the west coast of Africa. A powerful illustration, painted in acrylics, shows a terrified young girl huddled in the hold of the ship. Upon arrival, she is purchased at a Boston slave market by the Wheatley family and given the name Phillis. When we next meet Phillis, we learn that she has become no ordinary slave. Mrs. Wheatley, realizing quickly how bright her new young slave was, decided to teach her to read and write, a sort of social experiment to see if an African could learn and understand the Bible. While this sort of instruction was not illegal as it was in the South, it was nevertheless never done.
Phillis proved to be such an able student that she progressed beyond English to Latin and Greek, geography and mathematics--this at a time when few white women were offered this sort of education, and only the elite among white men. Phillis was especially attracted to poetry, and had her first poem published when she was only fourteen years old. Phillis became a celebrity in Boston, and was trotted out by her mistress to all the finest houses in town as a sort of curiosity.
Ironically, Boston printers refused to publish a compilation of Wheatley's poems, refusing to believe that a Negro slave could have written them, even after a panel of distinguished Bostonians, including John Hancock, interviewed her and vouched for her. Instead, the Wheatleys sent Phillis on a trip over the ocean to London, where she met a British publisher willing to publish her volume, and was received in the finest homes. Returning to America when she learned her mistress was ill, she continued to write, even as Boston rebelled against the British. After being published in London, her book sold well in Boston, and Phillis' fame grew. She was even invited to meet General Washington after writing a poem in his honor.
In an epilogue, Lasky relates briefly the last years of Wheatley's life; after receiving papers freeing her from slavery from the Wheatleys, she married and had three children, all of whom died in infancy. Her final poem, "Liberty and Peace," celebrated the end of the war, and she died in poverty at the age of thirty-one.
Back matter includes an index and a list of selected sources, as well as notes from the author and illustrator. The text includes a few brief quotations from Wheatley's poems.
At a brief 38 pages, with beautiful and abundant color illustrations, this very accessible biography is one step up from a picture book, and could be read aloud in class or by parents as well as read independently by students in about third grade and up. While the author provides plenty of information for a biographical report, the subject matter is fascinating and suitable for general reading as well as school assignments. Phillis Wheatley's remarkable rise from an illiterate slave to a literary figure celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic is an inspiration to share with children, particularly during Black History Month or Women's History Month.
Rich illustrations and clear text bring Phillis Wheatley's story to life and help to make her biographical account accessible to younger readers. The narrative also touches on some of the economic aspects of slavery and reasons why whites were unwilling to empower slaves with educations, making the book a valuable resource for educating children about the history of slavery and the importance of social justice.