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A VOICE OF HER OWN by Kathryn Lasky


The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet

by Kathryn Lasky & illustrated by Paul Lee

Age Range: 6 - 10

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-7636-0252-3
Publisher: Candlewick

A sizable dose of imagination seeks to illuminate the life of Phillis Wheatley, the 18th-century slave poet, but reveals more about the author than the subject. Lasky (Porkenstein, 2002, etc.) opens the story in the hold of the slaver Phillis and then follows Wheatley’s life and career as she is purchased by the Wheatleys of Boston, learns to speak, read, and write English, and begins to write and then publish her own poems. Throughout, the author imputes thoughts and feelings—“Boston was the strangest sight Phillis had ever seen”—without substantiation and even introduces dialogue which, without documentation, can only be assumed to be invented—“ ‘What will you call her?’ John Wheatley asked his wife.” Perhaps most poignantly, Phillis is presented as treasuring a memory of her mother making an offering to the morning sun; however, even in the poem to which Lasky refers for this image, it does not appear in Wheatley’s own writing. Poignant indeed, but the only person the reader can be certain of treasuring this vision is Lasky herself. Lee’s (Hank Aaron: Brave in Every Way, 2001, etc.) acrylics glow with color, as if themselves lit by candlelight, effectively enhancing the sentimental mood of the narrative. The representations of Wheatley are clearly based on the only known portrait of the poet, the frontispiece of her volume of published poetry; a certain lack of expression in the illustrations, however, gives her an air of inscrutability. There is not a whiff of a bibliography, not even to refer readers to Wheatley’s poetry, which is widely available in print and electronic formats. An author’s note describes in lofty terms her motivations behind bringing Wheatley’s story to a picture-book audience: “To be voiceless is to be dehumanized. . . . Phillis’s first liberation came when she learned to read and write and discovered her own voice as a poet.” It is a pity that Lasky chooses to impose her own feelings and voice upon this woman whose voice she purports to celebrate. (Picture book/biography. 6-10)