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My Name Is Phillis Wheatley

A Story of Slavery and Freedom

by Afua Cooper

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african american, 19th century, united states
list price: $16.95
published: 2009
publisher: Kids Can Press
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Canadian Children's  Book Centre
Librarian review

My Name is Phillis Wheatley: A Story of Slavery and Freedom

Noted historian Afua Cooper has brought her expertise to this fictionalized memoir of Phillis Wheatley, who published a book of poetry in 1773 becoming the first Black person in America to do so.

Seven-year-old Penda Wane is born free on the edge of the great African desert. Training to become a griot – a praise-singer and poet – her whole world changes when she is captured by slave traders. After enduring the long walk to the sea and an even more grueling journey by ship to America, she is left to die on a Boston wharf. The Wheatleys, however, take pity on her and buy her for a ‘mere trifle.’ Penda Wane is renamed Phillis Wheatley and her mistress, Susanna Wheatley, begins an experiment to see if a Black slave is intelligent enough to learn to read and write.

Soon surpassing her mistresses’ abilities, Phillis becomes an accomplished poet but must prove she is, in fact, the author of such poems. Eventually she is sent to England to have her poetry published, as American publishers will not publish the work of a Black slave. Phillis gains her freedom and marries John Peters, a free Black man who is studying law.

Afua Cooper tells the story of how a young girl destined to become a griot in her home country eventually becomes a famous poet in the country in which she is enslaved. She arouses our sympathy as she describes the loneliness Phyllis encounters by becoming a learned Black woman. Through her descriptions of life in Africa, Cooper also helps us to imagine how frighteningly different life in America must have been for those enslaved.

Appropriate for students in intermediate/early senior grades this book is an excellent companion novel to My Name is Henry Bibb, also by author Afua Cooper.

Source: The Canadian Children's Bookcentre. Fall 2009. Vol.32 No.4.

Canadian Children's  Book Centre
Librarian review

My Name Is Phillis Wheatley: A Story of Slavery and Freedom

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was a slave who went on to become America’s first black poet and the first black American woman to be published. This story, written in Wheatley’s voice, tells of her journey to freedom. The book includes a prologue and an epilogue.

Source: The Canadian Children’s Book Centre. Best Books for Kids & Teens. 2010.

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  • Winner, Beacon of Freedom Award
  • Winner, Best Books for Kids & Teens, Canadian Children's Book Centre
  • Winner, Applied Arts Photography & Illustration Award, Applied Arts
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This is the remarkable story of Phillis Wheatley, who is born into an African family of griots, or storytellers, but captured by slave raiders and forced aboard a slave ship, where appalling conditions spell death for many of her companions. Numerous sharks follow the ship, feeding on the corpses of slaves thrown overboard.

Weakened by the voyage and near death in a Boston slave market, Wheatley is bought by a kind family who nurses her back to health and teaches her to read and write. Soon her mistress recognizes that the girl is a quick learner and talented. At the age of 12, a torrent of poetry begins to flow out of Wheatley. Proud of her achievements, her mistress organizes readings in Boston's finest parlors and drawing rooms, and Wheatley's fame spreads. But even when many in Boston are calling her a prodigy and a genius, some remain unsure that a slave should be able to write, much less write poetry. When Phillis travels to London she is a media sensation, feted by the cream of English society. A book of her poems is published, and she finally gains her freedom.

This amazing story, wide in scope, is based on fact and told convincingly from young Wheatley's point of view.

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About the Author

Afua Cooper

Afua Cooper, Halifax’s seventh Poet Laureate, is the author of five books of poetry, including the critically acclaimed Copper Woman and Other Poems and two novels, The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Slavery in Canada and the Burning of Old Montreal, and My Name is Phillis Wheatley. She has also recorded two poetry CDs, including the forthcoming Love and Revolution. A founder of the Canadian Dub poetry movement, Afua Cooper was instrumental in organizing between 2004 and 2009, three international dub poetry festivals.

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