A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this is an award-winning book of poetry about the real life of Cuban slave Juan Francisco Manzano. The main character, a child during the story's telling, is repeatedly and persistently beaten, whipped, and tortured. The level of violence and brutality in this book make it very intense and probably a better fit for teens -- though readers of any age are sure to be disturbed. Even so, it is the winner of a number of awards, including the American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults, the IRA Children's Book Award, the Pura Belpre Author Award, and more. Teens will learn about a literary and historical figure, and also be moved by Juan's story, and how he uses his love of poetry and words to tolerate horrific conditions.
What's the story?
The first part of the life of Juan Francisco Manzano, until his escape from slavery, is told in a series of poems, from a variety of viewpoints and voices. A child prodigy, with perfect recall and amazing talent in poetry, he is treated as a performing pet by his first mistress. But when she dies, his insane new mistress abuses and tortures him horribly until he finally escapes. Includes brief bibliography, historical background, and four excerpts of Manzano's poetry.
Is it any good?
For teens, this is a solid introduction to an all-but-forgotten literary and historical figure, and the tale of survival and defiance has moments of uplift. The Poet Slave of Cuba will inspire readers to wonder: Why did Juan persist in reading and writing when it invariably brought him beatings? How did his abilities sustain him? Teens may also be interested in finding out about his life, or those of other slave poets, such as George Moses Horton, Jupiter Hammon, and Phyllis Wheatley.
Unfortunately, readers may find that the free verse leaves some aspects of the story unclear, such as how Juan ends up with the Marquesa after being granted his freedom. Authors of similar works (see Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill, for example) solve that problem by the use of footnotes and/or endnotes. No such luck here -- the historical note only picks up after the story ends. Also, Manzano lived in Cuba in the early 1800s, and it's likely that most young readers will know little about that society -- it would have been useful if the note had given some context.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the level of violence in this book. It is very disturbing -- is it made more so by the fact that it actually happened to a real child? Or does the fact that it is in the past make it easier to handle?
Is reading about violence different than seeing it in a movie or experiencing it in a video game?
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