The Slave Dancer Book Poster Image

The Slave Dancer

Moderately graphic depiction of the slave trade.

What parents need to know

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.

Not applicable
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.

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.

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.

Families can talk 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 his experiences aboard the ship will affect him long after he returns to dry land?

Book details

Author:Paula Fox
Genre:Historical Fiction
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Penguin Group
Publication date:March 28, 2004
Number of pages:176
Publisher's recommended age(s):9 - 12

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Teen, 16 years old Written bypinkkrunkladie3 April 9, 2008
Kid, 11 years old April 9, 2008

Maybe disturbing for people who aren't ready

A good book that I recomend to people who can handle it. It's a little intense. There's beating and some language, there's also lots of dying. It's a little depressing to see what people did to the african slaves.
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 is also for older kids because it is a little harder to read. It is an interesting book and very good but it is very detailed about the slave trade. Btw it might say Im a parent but I am really 11 years old this book was a little too much for me and many of my classmates.
What other families should know
Educational value
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking