Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Book review: Phillis's Big Test

Phillis's Big Test written by Catherine Clinton, illustrated by Sean Qualls and published by Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

In 1773, Phillis Wheatley became the first African American to publish a book of poetry. When she went to London to meet with literary admires, she became the most famous black person on both sides of the Atlantic.

Thus, the story of Phillis Wheatley begins. But, the story behind Phillis' success is really what Phillis' Big Test is all about. The story opens as Phillis is walking to the public hall where she will be examined by the most important men in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to prove she is actually the author of her poems. Clinton imagines what she might have thought about as she walked. She remembers arriving in Boston on a ship from Africa and that John Wheatley bought her as a servant for his wife Susanna. She learned to read and write English, Latin, and Greek from Nathaniel and Mary, the Wheatley's twin children. "Books had opened up a whole new world to Phillis, as she was taught literature and geography, as she memorized the names of cities and countries, lists of kings and queens, and dates of discoveries." However, it was poetry that inspired her the most. Here she reflects on why she wrote a book of poetry:

She was not content to recite her verse in drawing rooms or to read one of her poems from a newspaper. She wanted her own book because books would not last just a lifetime; they would be there for her children and her children's children.

Though Phillis is confident in her ability to defend her own work and has prepared extensively for the big test, she is nervous. The story ends when Phillis enters the large wooden door of the public hall: "Good day, gentlemen. I am the poet Phllis Wheatley."

An epilogue states that no record exists of Phillis Wheatley's examination, but we know she passed "with flying colors" since the eighteen examiners signed a document testifying to her authorship, which appeared in the back of her volume of poems. After going abroad to meet her literary patrons, she returned to America where she was freed by her master. Phillis Wheatley died in 1784 before her second book of poems could be published.

I enjoyed the story of Phillis Wheatley for several reasons. Clinton's writing style sets a formal, biographical tone yet allows the reader a glimpse of Phillis as someone who is passionate about reading and writing and how that passion changed her life and filled her hopes and dreams. Qualls's collages compliment Clinton's writing with straightforward illustrations that capture the tone and mood of the story with a palate of reds, blues, grays, browns, and black. You can see several pages of Sean Qualls's illustrations from Phillis's Big Test on his blog and read his commentary on the choices he made when illustrating the book. Very neat!

This is a great story to share with children during National Poetry Month. The only thing missing from the story are a few examples of Phillis's poetry. For that, you might check out A Poem of Her Own: Voices of American Women Yesterday and Today also written by Catherine Clinton and illustrated by Stephen Alcorn. Among the poets included are luminaries such as Phillis Wheatley, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, and Sylvia Plath. Also featured are previously unpublished pieces by contemporary poets Julia Alvarez, Nikki Giovanni, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Marge Piercy.

Since Phillis's Big Test is only about the examination and doesn't really touch on other aspects of Phillis Wheatley's life, children might also be interested in learning more about her. For this, children might enjoy Phillis Wheatley: Slave and Poet by Robin Doak. In addition to the biography, it inlcudes a time line, source notes, additional resources, a glossary, an index and a bibliography.

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