A Voice of Her Own: The story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet written by Kathryn Lasky and illustrated by Paul Lee
- Grade Level 3-7
- Ages 8+
- Children’s Picture Book
- Miss Jenna's rating: 5/5
“In 1761, a young African girl was sold to the Wheatley family in Boston. The family named her Phillis after the schooner that transported her to slavery... She became a poet... She also found what had been taken away from her and from slaves everywhere: a voice of her own." (This is an excerpt from the book's inside cover)
A Voice of Her Own is a children's picture book and biography of Phillis Wheatley. It covers her life from living on a slave ship, to the death of Susannah Wheatley when Phillis was in her late teens to early twenties.
When I decided to review picture books about Phillis Wheatley for this week’s blog post, I checked out two books from my library. One was A Voice of Her Own by Kathryn Lasky, and the other was Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies by Cokie Roberts. I was disappointed when I read Founding Mothers, as it brushed over the emotional and daily impact slavery must have inevitably had on Phillis Wheatley. Considering she was a slave for most of her short life, this should not be brushed over when learning about her. In A Voice of Her Own, I was impressed by how Kathryn Lasky and Paul Lee were both able to create powerful images that made me more sympathetic and compassionate towards Phillis as an individual.
The first page’s illustration shows Phillis sitting on the ground, hugging her knees to her chest. There are men behind her. They are chained and sitting in the same position. The next page illustrates and describes Phillis thinking about her family in Africa and missing her mother. This kind of thoughtful presentation of what Phillis must have gone through seemed appropriate to the age recommended (8+). It was neither too graphic, nor too vague. It made Phillis real. Rather than presenting her as a dry historical figure with nothing in common to today’s 8-12-year old's, the book starts by making her relatable. She misses her mom. Most kids have missed their mom at some point too.
Throughout the book I was impressed with how the author was able to write in a way that told about the historical realities of Phillis's life, without forgetting what she must have experienced. While writing with historical terms such as “a mean cargo” (talking about women and children slaves), and “negroes,” Kathryn Lasky was able to balance it out by putting the humanity into Phillis’s experience. How frustrated she must have felt at the way she was treated by different people. How she must have thought about her family after she was kidnapped. How poetry gave her an outlet for some of her thoughts and feelings.
The illustrations were poignant. For the most part you could look at the illustrations without reading and understand how Phillis must have been feeling. I found many of them touching. The first illustration is relatable, sad, lonely. In another, she sits alone with a cup of tea, while across the room a group of white women are laughing and drinking tea together. It’s clear that Phillis thinks and feels deeply.
Both the author and illustrator were able to make this book thought-provoking, informative, and feeling. This book would make a great start to a conversation about racism, segregation, slavery, and/or of course Phillis Wheatley. I wish I had read this book when I was young. Not only does it cover the life of a historical black figure, it is a great jumping off point for a broader conversation about topics that are relevant today.
If you’d like to learn more about Phillis Wheatley, I’d recommend listening to this podcast episode by The History Chicks Podcast.
Review by Miss Jenna