In searching for books to read with my girls for National Poetry Month last month, I came across an interesting title in the juvenile 811’s. I pulled it off the shelf, and when I noted that it was about Phillis Wheatley, an historical figure my girls had just met through an episode of “Liberty’s Kids”, of course I brought it home.
Phillis’s Big Test by Catherine Clinton is the story of one small but monumentally important episode in the life of Phillis Wheatley, enslaved poetess. This picture book biography recounts Wheatley’s experience of being questioned by a panel of the most learned men in Massachusetts to verify that she was indeed the author of her poems “because printers in colonial Boston could not believe than an African-born enslaved girl wrote such wonderful verses all by herself.” History (and this story’s epilogue) tell us that Wheatley did pass the test and her volume of poetry was published. Of course, we all know this. What this picture book does, though, is paint a picture of Phillis’s early life in the Wheatley household. The Wheatleys treat her kindly, and it is there that her mind is opened up by the learning they gave her access to, since she is schooled alongside the Wheatleys’ own children. She learns Bible stories and poems, and of course, to read. Through reading, she learns “her very own role in the chain of events stretching from past to present.” Wheatley is determined to stand up to her questioners:
She did not know why she had been brought from Africa to Boston, or why she had ended up in the Wheatley home. But she knew that she must now make the most of her opportunities. She must make her voice heard.
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.
She is encouraged by her mistress, Susanna Wheatley, that her “talent will speak for itself,” so she should “look them straight in the eye as [she] answers all their questions.” Quite a bit of suspense is built up as Phillis walks toward her trial, and then. . .
Well, then the story ends. Rather abruptly, I might add. I admit to being a little put out by this; I wanted a resolution! I was quite disappointed by this ending and really just wanted to dismiss the story altogether. (Of course, the epilogue explains that there is no record of Wheatley’s examination, but we know that she must’ve passed the test since her volume of poetry was published.) Then I began to think about it: this is the way history really is, isn’t it? We don’t have a nice little storybook ending for most of history, especially that which happened before the digital age. My thinking about the book, then, has come full circle: I’ve gone from disgust to appreciation for this little picture book biography because I think it would make a fantastic springboard to talk about all sorts of things: Phillis Wheatley, of course; slavery; the nature of history (and historiography); etc. My girls are really a little young, at 5 and almost 7, to understand most of this; thus, I think this story would work well for upper elementary through high school.
I really have to mention Sean Qualls‘ illustrations. They are very unusual and in fact reminiscent of Edvard Munch, both in terms of color scheme and style. Qualls uses lots of oranges and reds juxtaposed against the blue sky and the darker colors of Wheatley’s skin and clothing, etc., which makes me think of “The Scream” and others of Munch’s works. Stylistically, Qualls uses elongated heads on a couple of pages in this story; once, to illustrate slaves on a slave ship and later to represent the “doubts [that] danced in [Phillis’s] head” as she slept. This is the illustration of the slave ship:
See what I mean?
I think this picture book biography would make an excellent addition to a study of American history or poetry, either one.
Related links and reviews elsewhere: