The Slave Dancer
By Matt Berman,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Kidnapped White boy sees cruelty of slavery in graphic tale.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
This novel reveals the brutality and inhumanity of the U.S. slave trade during the mid-19th century. It's an eye-opening view into the transportation of abducted Black people for the purposes of selling them, and even students who have already learned about the evils of slavery will find this book revealing as well as shocking.
The U.S. trade in enslaved African men, women, and children was cruel and inhumane. No human should enslave another.
Positive Role Models
Jessie is horrified by the treatment of the enslaved people. His perspective shines a light on the inhumanity of the slave trade, and when it counts, he comes through for a young Black boy who was abducted, as well as the older man who helps them. That man, Daniel, who escaped slavery and is hiding out in the woods in Mississippi, cares for Jessie and the other boy, and helps each of them find a safe haven.
Violence & Scariness
The Slave Dancer is filled with graphic violence, including abduction, flogging, beatings, and murder by shooting and throwing people overboard. Captives are abused, starved, and humiliated. Many are naked, and the sailors ogle them. Jessie peeps through windows at women undressing.
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The "N" word is used 17 times.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
The captain and sailors drink heavily: rum, brandy, beer, etc. They give beer to young Jessie, but he doesn't like it. Toward the end of the voyage, the sailors give alcohol to their prisoners as well. Some sailors also smoke tobacco pipes.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Paula Cox's 1974 Newbery Medal winner The Slave Dancer offers a graphic depiction of the United States slave trade. It's told from the point of view of a White boy, Jessie, who's kidnapped in 1840 from New Orleans and forced to work on a "slave ship" to Africa, where the captain buys Black men, women, and children. The captives are packed into the crowded hold of the ship for the brutal journey to the United States. Though the reading level is suitable for middle-graders, kids will find this novel very disturbing. The realities of slavery and the individual acts of cruelty in this book -- abduction, beating, starvation, humiliation, murder -- are probably too intense for sensitive readers. The "N" word is used frequently, and it's just one of the ways that Black people are dehumanized. The behavior of the sailors is also just generally appalling, as they drink heavily and leer at the naked captives. Jessie is a good-hearted boy, however, so he's as horrified as the reader by what happens, and readers learn that he carries the emotional scars from these events into his adulthood.
Where to Read
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What's the Story?
THE SLAVE DANCER begins in 1840 New Orleans, where a young boy named Jessie is kidnapped and forced aboard a "slave ship" bound for Africa. He is forced both to act as a ship's boy and to play his fife while the enslaved Africans are "danced" -- meaning, they're forced to exercise in order to maintain muscle tone during the voyage. Jessie tries to refuse but he's flogged for being disobedient. On the ship, he meets the vicious, greedy, hard-drinking captain and the sullen and contentious crew. But the rigors of the trip west across the Atlantic, including the brutal and unjust flogging of one of the sailors, do not prepare Jessie for the horrors of the return trip. The enslaved are packed into the hold on top of each other; they are brutalized and malnourished, and the dead are thrown overboard. Jessie is eventually able to help one of the captives to safety, but he will never forget what he saw on that ship.
Is It Any Good?
By telling this story from Jessie's point of view, author Paula Fox helps young readers share his journey and his horror, as the brutality of the slave trade is revealed to him. It's an emotional point of entry to a grotesque world. This is an enormously effective approach, especially when Jessie is made to "dance" the captives. This is a disturbingly (and realistically) violent story, in which inhumane treatment of the captive Africans segues into murder when they are hurled from the ship into shark-infested open water. Younger readers, particularly those who are sensitive to injustice, should read this book in a classroom setting or along with parents who can help their children understand the material and express their feelings about it.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the author's choice to make the narrator of The Slave Dancer a young White boy. How would the story be different if one of the enslaved African people told it?
How did it make you feel when Jessie is forced to perform for the Black captives?
What did you know about slavery in the U.S. before you read this novel? What more did you learn?
- Author: Paula Fox
- Genre: Historical Fiction
- Topics: Great Boy Role Models, History
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Aladdi
- Publication date: March 28, 2004
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 9 - 12
- Number of pages: 176
- Available on: Paperback, Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Award: Newbery Medal and Honors
- Last updated: June 10, 2021
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Where to Read
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