The Slave Dancer

Book review by
Matt Berman, Common Sense Media
The Slave Dancer Book Poster Image
Moderately graphic depiction of the slave trade.

Parents say

age 14+
Based on 3 reviews

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 12 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Positive Messages

The behavior of the sailors, toward each other and toward the slaves, is appalling. The slaves are beaten and starved, and humiliated.


The book is necessarily filled with graphic violence, none of it gratuitous, from floggings and beatings to murder by shooting and throwing overboard.


Many of the slaves are naked, and the sailors enjoy looking at them. Jessie peeps through windows at women undressing.


The racial epithet beginning with n is used frequently.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Quite a bit of drinking and drunkenness on the part of the sailors, who also give young Jessie beer, which he doesn't like.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this is a moderately graphic depiction of the worst aspects of the slave trade, told exclusively from a white boy's point of view, and it will raise many questions, both historical and moral. Though the reading level is middle to upper elementary, sensitive children may find it disturbing.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent of a 11-year-old Written byabiangel2016 January 19, 2016

Its fine but...

This book is great but you do need to be alerted of language and reference to sex, and drugs. I believe this book is only for you if you are mature. This book i... Continue reading
Adult Written byllama101 May 18, 2016

I think it would be better suitable for.....

I feel this book has many racial slurs and complete disrespect towards women, such as when the crew look at the naked slaves or when Jessie peeks through window... Continue reading
Kid, 10 years old February 24, 2015

A bit disturbing (morally), but not as bad as your review

There are a few racial insults, a small illustration at the beginning of the slaves nude (not explicit and with conveniently-placed crates). However, the
viole... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written byyellowblossomflower April 10, 2014

Awesome, but can be hard to understand

I think this is an awesome book! It is amazingly written, and a great story. However, it can sometimes be hard to understand the actual literature, as the words... Continue reading

What's the story?

Kidnapped in New Orleans, Jessie is forced aboard a slave ship bound for Africa, where he is required both to act as a ship's boy and, when the slaves are brought on board, to play his fife while they are "danced" -- that is, forced to exercise. On the ship he meets the vicious and greedy 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 him for the horrors of the return trip, as the slaves are packed into the hold on top of each other, brutalized, malnourished, thrown overboard when they die, and forced to dance to the sound of Jessie's fife.

Is it any good?

The somewhat awkward device of Jessie's kidnapping allows author Paula Fox to look at the slave trade from the point of view of an innocent. Jessie, neither slave, slave owner, nor slave trader, an empathetic boy brought up in genteel poverty in a majority-black city, can relate to what he sees with just revulsion, and without hypocrisy or complicity, though the complete lack of any sort of racism in this son of the pre-Civil War South strains credulity a bit. But it's necessary to allow him to provide young readers with an emotional point of entry to a grotesque and alien world.

Fox does not pull many punches -- the depiction of the methods of the trade is clear and thoroughly researched, though an Author's Note about that research would have been welcome. She also makes clear the impact of involvement in the trade, from the debasement and brutality of the sailors to the lifelong emotional impact of the experience on Jessie, vividly and lyrically portrayed in an epilogue.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the author's choice to make the narrator a young, white boy instead of a slave or a slave owner. Does the fact that Jessie is more or less an innocent bystander in the slave trade make his description of what he sees more or less reliable?

  • How do Jessie's experiences before boarding the ship affect the way he views the slaves? The sailors? 

  • In what ways do you think the horror of Jessie's experiences aboard the ship will affect him long after he returns to dry land?

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