________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 14 . . . . December 4, 2009

cover

My Name is Phillis Wheatley: A Story of Slavery and Freedom.

Afua Cooper.
Toronto, ON: Kid Can Press, 2009.
152 pp., hardcover, $16.95.
ISBN 978-1-55337-812-9.

Subject Headings:
Wheatley, Phillis, 1753-1784-Juvenile fiction.
Poets, American-Colonial period, ca. 1600-1775-Biography-Juvenile fiction.
Slaves-United States-Biography-Juvenile fiction.
African American poets-Biography-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 6 and up / Ages 11 and up.

Review by Naomi Hamer.

*** /4

excerpt:

Sometimes while I worked with Aunt Betty mixing the batter for our bread, I would stop with a piece of dough in my hand and stare into space. "Phillis," Aunt Betty's voice would say. "Stop your dreaming, child. We cannot eat air. Make the bread." But I wasn't dreaming. I was listening to the words speaking in my head.

Then, one evening, in the year I turned twelve, it happened. At twilight I was sitting on a chair in the room I shared with Aunt Betty. It was late autumn and night came early. The room was filled with an electric air and the words formed in perfect meter and rhyme in my mind. It was as if Ma Ndiaye was in the room, encouraging me, coaxing me. Over and over the poem came without effort. I walked briskly to Mary's room and knocked.

Mary opened the door. "It is not time for lessons, Phillis. "I know Miss Mary, but I need to borrow quill, ink and paper. There is a poem in my head that I must get out".

 

Afua Cooper's novel provides a fictionalized biographical account of the first published African American poet Phillis Wheatley. Through the voice of this unique protagonist, the narrative recounts Wheatley's early childhood and storytelling heritage in Gambia, her epic sea journey to America, followed by her youth as a educated slave in 18th century Boston, and her travels to London as a famed young poet ‘prodigy.' The novel takes its reader on an exciting trajectory, interweaving historical events with highly personal depictions of trauma and spiritual discovery.

     The novel's strengths and weaknesses lie in the author's attempt to capture the majority of Wheatley's life in under two hundred pages. As a result, there tends to be a tension between the accurate depiction of historical events and the portrayal of personal experience from a young girl's point of view. The reader is often welcomed inside Phillis' perspective at significant moments to share in her frustrations and successes. However, for the most part, the narration tends to be more impersonal as historical and life events are recounted in a swift and objective fashion.

     The narrative concludes with Phillis Wheatley's marriage to John Peters. Understandably, the author wished to depict biographical information as accurately as possible for young readers, but I wonder if this short novel would have left a stronger impression if it concluded with a successful moment in the protagonist's young life as a writer.

     Despite these weaknesses, this historical narrative about a strong African American young woman with an inspiring story would be of particularly interest for teachers of literature, history and social studies. An introductory author note that clarifies the historical and biographical accuracy of the novel would have been a helpful inclusion for young readers with little knowledge of the history of slavery and abolition, nor previous knowledge of Phillis Wheatley as an historical figure.

     Overall, Cooper's novel provides an important personal narrative from African American history that will inspire and teach young readers simultaneously.

     A specialist in the history of slavery and abolition, Dr. Afua Cooper is the author of The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal. She is also a published poet and recording artist. My Name is Phillis Wheatley is published in tandem with another fictional text based on the life of a real enslaved child, My Name is Henry Bibb. These are Cooper's first books for young readers.

Recommended.

Naomi Hamer is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Research on Children, Youth and Media, Institute of Education, University of London, UK. She currently teaches in the area of Young People's Texts and Cultures in the in the Department of English at the University of Winnipeg. She also has an MA in Children Literature from the University of British Columbia and has worked extensively as a drama and creative writing instructor with children and teens in schools, libraries and recreational programs.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.
 

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