A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatly, Slave Poet, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Paul Lee

There are a handful of decent series of biographies for kids second through fourth grade reading level and they all pretty much cover the same range of historical figures celebrities and occasional artist or author or all-around spectacular person like Jim Henson. That is why I am so excited by Candlewick Press's new line of biographies dedicated to telling the true stories of remarkable people, illuminating a "turning point or defining moment in the life of a notable individual in the arts, sciences, or history." Four books in, and this series promises to be fantastic - from subjects to text to images. I am thrilled to see kids have more options to choose from when report time rolls around.

Kathryn Lasky, a prolific author of non-fiction and fiction, children's and adult books, most notable the Guardians of Gahoole series as well as books in the Dear America series of historical fiction diaries, is a perfect contributor to this new series. In her author's note for A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phyllis Wheatley, Slave Poet, she says she was drawn to Wheatley's story because it is ultimately about the relationship between "voice, identity and freedom. What slavery and every other form of oppression have in common is that they impose silence. To be voiceless is to be dehumanized... Phillis's first liberation came when she learned to read and writes and discovered her own voice as a poet. Her second liberation came when she was handed her manumission papers."Lasky stresses the ironies and inhumanities of the era, but I almost wish that her author's note came at the start of the book. I wonder if young readers can truly grasp what it means to not be allowed to learn to read and write, to be denied an essential form of communication, expression and entertainment? 

Lasky begins Wheatley's story on the slave ship that brought her to America as a seven-year-old. Lasky's writing is stark and powerful as she evokes the sounds, smells and experiences of the hold of slave ship. One thing I especially like about Lasky's writing and this series is the amount of information on each page - sometimes it's just a paragraph, sometimes it's a half of a page or more - but it always feels like the right amount of content for the life experience being shown, an amount that should keep most readers interested.

Lasky lets the reader know that the conditions of slaves in the North was very different from those in the South, but even so, Susannah Wheatley, her owner, was definitely a liberal minded woman of the times. Impressed by Phillis's intelligence, Susannah taught her to write and read and in a short time Phillis was crafting poems of her own. Susannah took her to the parlors of other families to recite her works, but Phillis always sat on the edge of the room when tea was served. What surprised me most was the fact that, in Susannah's effort to have Phillis's poems published, Phillis had to stand before a room of learned men and answer questions proving that she had received and education that would allow her to write, and write poetry that was often sympathetic to the American Revolution. She received a letter of proof but printers in Boston still refused her. Instead, she sailed to England where she was received by her readers and met with a publisher who would print her book. She even was asked to meet the King, but had to return home immediately when she learned Susannah, who considered Phillis a daughter, was seriously ill. 

Freed after Susannah's death, Phillis went on to write and even wrote a poem about George Washington, which she sent to him. He in turn wrote back to her, addressing her as "Miss Phillis." It's is believed that this is the first time he addressed a Negro woman as "Miss."

Other books in the amazing series of biographies of important Americans:

Source: Review Copy

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