A lyrical biography of a Cuban slave who escaped to become a celebrated poet.
Born into the household of a wealthy slave owner in Cuba in 1797, Juan Francisco Manzano spent his early years by the side of a woman who made him call her Mama, even though he had a mama of his own. Denied an education, young Juan still showed an exceptional talent for poetry. His verses reflect the beauty of his world, but they also expose its hideous cruelty.
Powerful, haunting poems and breathtaking illustrations create a portrait of a life in which even the pain of slavery could not extinguish the capacity for hope.
The Poet Slave of Cuba is the winner of the 2008 Pura Belpre Medal for Narrative and a 2007 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.
|Edition description:||Bilingual edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Sean Qualls is the illustrator of The Baby on the Way and Powerful Words. He lives with his wife and their son in Brooklyn, New York.
Read an Excerpt
My mind is a brush made of feathers
painting pictures of words
all that I see
each word a twin of itself
telling two stories
at the same time
one of sorrow
the other hope
I love the words
written with my feathery mind
in the air
and with my sharp fingernails
on leaves in the garden
When my owner catches
of the fragrance
engraved in the flesh
of succulent geranium leaves
or the perfumed petals of alelí flowers
then she frowns because she knows
that I dream
with my feathers
Poetry cools me, syllables calm me
I read the verses of others
the free men
that I’m never alone
Poetry sets me aflame
I grow furious
dangerous, a blaze
of soul and heart, a fiery tongue
a lantern at midnight
My first owner was sweet to me
I was her pet, a new kind of poodle
my pretty mother chosen
to be her personal handmaid
María del Pilar Manzano
Together we belonged
along with countless others
human beasts of burden
to Doña Beatríz de Justíz, La Marquesa
the proud Marchioness Justíz de Santa Ana
noble wife of Don Juan Manzano
who shares my name
he is not
Don Juan rules El Molino
on this island of sugar
and many other
These were my mother’s duties:
dress La Marquesa
cool her skin with a palm-leaf fan
collect milk from new mothers
in the huts
near the fields
slave milk, the lotion used for softening
of noble ladies
This my mother accomplished:
deliver the milk
grind eggshells and rice into powder
for making la cascarada
a pale shell for hiding
to be pale
in our presence
When the noble ladies go out in public
masked and disguised
we no longer look the same
and dark slaves
Now my owner is ghostly
inside her skeleton of powder
but I, being only a poodle,
I am allowed
So I listen
when the ghost-owner calls me her own baby
she plays with me
and even decides
to set my true mother
Free to marry Toribio de Castro
a man also promised
My father is winged, like my mother
oh, I envy them
what will happen
left behind in this haunted nest?
She takes me with her wherever she goes
I become the companion of my owner, noble ghost
no, not a companion, remember?
a poodle, her pet
with my curly dark hair
and small child’s brown skin
for the theater
So I bark
I learn to whine and howl
I’m known as the smart one who never
I can listen
Listen, she says to her friends
and the priest
see how little Juanito can sing
see how I’ve trained him
Back and forth
over and over
country home, city home, palaces, the plantation
only six years old, she says
but listen to his big funny
Back and forth
over and over
I recite strange words in several languages
Spanish, Latin, French
while my sweet ghost-Mamá-owner
and all her friends
they are forgetful
I am rememberful
I remember there is also one more mother
in my song
Excerpted from The Poet Slave of Cuba by Margarita Engle.
Copyright © 2006 by Margarita Engle.
Published in 2006 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Reading Group Guide
1. How did the slave experience of Juan Francisco Manzano in Cuba differ from that of slaves in the United States?
2. How did sugarcane contribute to the growth of slavery in Cuba?
3. What was the cultural hierarchy of Cuba during the 19th century? How was this revealed in The Poet Slave of Cuba?
4. What was the relationship between the individuals in The Poet Slave of Cuba? Create a diagram to assist in determining how each was connected to the other person.
5. What were the various skills and trades learned by Manzano? How were they acquired and how did he use these skills throughout his life?
6. Why was La Marquesa de Prado Ameno so sadistic in her relationship with Manzano? What do her actions tell us about her?
7. What type of interactions occurred between Manzano and Don Nicolás? Could Nicolás have assisted Juan in some way?
8. How do Sean Qualls' white, black, and gray illustrations enhance and extend the biography?
9. What do you feel is the most compelling moment or event of this story? Explain.
10. Would you film this biography in black and white or in color and why?