Monday, February 25, 2013

Black History Month Book Review: A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet, by Kathryn Lasky (Candlewick, 2012)

Recommended for ages 7-12.

Candlewick has recently reissued in beautiful full-color paperback editions several biographies of famous African-American women by Kathryn Lasky.  Earlier this month I reviewed Vision of Beauty:  The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker.  In A Voice of Her Own, Lasky shares the story of an equally extraordinary woman, Phillis Wheatley, known as the first black woman poet in America.

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.

Phillis Wheatley. Poems on Various Subjects. London, 1783

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.


shelf-employed said...

A timely review. Thanks for joining the roundup, Margo!

PragmaticMom said...

I didn't realize what happened to her. It's sad she died in poverty and that her work never really got the recognition it deserved while she was alive but I'm glad she became a free person finally. This book really brings that tumultuous time alive during the birth of America! So perfect for Black History Month!

Tammy Flanders said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I'll look into this one for the Doucette Library.
Apples with Many Seeds