Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet

A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet

Kathryn Lasky
Illustrator:  Paul Lee 
For ages 8 to 10
Candlewick, 2012   ISBN: 978-0763664275

When she was just a little child, the girl who would come to be called Phillis Wheatley left her home in Africa aboard a slave ship. Treated little better than animals, she and many others traveled across the ocean unsure of what fate awaited them. Phillis was a small, weak looking little girl, and when the agent in Boston saw her, he did not expect to be able to sell her for much. Though Mrs. Wheatley needed an older girl to be a personal servant, she saw something that she liked in Phillis and purchased her.

Phillis soon showed her mistress that she was indeed a special child. She seemed eager to learn how to read and write, and though slaves were rarely educated, Mrs. Wheatley decided to encourage Phillis. She gave the girl books, paper, pen, and ink and let Phillis study when she was not working. In just sixteen months, Phillis learned English well enough that she could read and write. Indeed, the nine-year-old learned more in this time than “some colonial girls and women ever did.” She then went on to learn Latin, Greek, Geography and Mathematics.

When Phillis was just fourteen, a poem she wrote was published in the Newport Mercury. Mrs. Wheatley was delighted that her protégé had become so well educated and that she was now writing her own poetry. Here was proof that a slave born in Africa could be educated. Phillis’ mistress began to show the girl off, taking her to the homes of friends so that she could recite her poems for an audience. Though the guests were happy to hear Phillis’ words, Phillis still had to sit at a separate table, and she still had to sit with the other negroes in church. Though she was more learned than many white Americans, she was not considered an equal when she was in their company.

In this excellent biography, Kathryn Lasky helps her readers to see that Phillis Wheatley was trapped between two worlds. She did not really fit in with the Negro community, nor was she fully accepted by the white people. Hers was often a lonely life, but she was able to express her thoughts and feeling using her poems, and her poetry has been read and enjoyed by many people over the years.

At the back of the book the author and the illustrator provide readers with some notes about their interest in Phillis Wheatley.