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The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano

The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano

5.0 1
by Margarita Engle, Sean Qualls (Illustrator)

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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


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.

Latino Interest.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
* "An absolutely lovely book . . . that should be read by young and old, black and white, Anglo and Latino."

School Library Journal, starred review

* "Readers will hear the stories—and never forget them."

Booklist, starred review

* "A work of literary imagination. Engle's skillful portrait will spark readers' interest in Manzano's own poetry."

Horn Book, starred review

* "The moving poetry and finely crafted story will draw readers in and leave them in tears and in awe."

The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review

starred review Booklist

Readers will hear the stories--and never forget them.
starred review Horn Book

A work of literary imagination. Engle's skillful portrait will spark readers' interest in Manzano's own poetry.
starred review The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

The moving poetry and finely crafted story will draw readers in and leave them in tears and in awe.
Publishers Weekly
Engle (Skywriting, for adults) achieves an impressive synergy between poetry and biography as she illuminates the tortured life of the 19th-century Cuban poet. Born a slave, Juan is kept like "a poodle, her pet/ with my curly dark hair/ and small child's brown skin," by his "godmother" and owner, Beatriz. She grants his birth parents manumission (for a price), while refusing to free Juan until her own death. Juan shows talent for memorization, and recites literature for Beatriz's amusement. Despite his mother's payment, Juan is transferred, at Beatriz's death, to another owner, the Marquesa de Prado Ameno, who punishes Juan cruelly. There he also secretly learns to read and write-posing a threat to the Marquesa and the social order. Engle's compelling poems shift in viewpoint among seven people, and the technique works beautifully: readers thus draw their own conclusions from Juan, his desperate parents, brutal owners, the Marquesa's sympathetic son and the conflicted Overseer. Juan's poems articulate both his enduring pain and dream of release ("I sit tied and gagged./ She is there, behind the curtain./ .../ She can't hear the stories I tell myself in secret"), while recurring bird imagery signifies elusive freedom. Quall's (The Baby on the Way) expressionistic half-tone illustrations extend Engle's exploration of race as a cornerstone of the social caste in Spanish colonial Cuba. (Juan and his family are dark-skinned; the women who own him use a powder of crushed eggshells and rice to lighten their complexion.) An author's note and excerpts from Manzano's own poetry round out this sophisticated volume. Ages 10-up. (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
The author tells us in an endnote that the story of Juan Manzano's (1797-1854) life had haunted her for many years before she realized that she would have to tell it in verse. This realization stuns the reader with the power of this unique poet's life. Written in spare, compelling verse, this book is a true gift to readers of poetry everywhere and a suitable tribute to the man who was called "The Poet Slave of Cuba." Juan Francisco Manzano was the son of a "pardo" (Negro) father and an African/Mulatto mother, but for most of his early life he was forced to live with the woman who owned them and to call her "mother." Because he had a brilliant mind and an acute sense of language he was able to memorize long passages he had heard in the presence of his mistress, who took pride in showing him off as an entertainment. After her death his life suffered great change. While he had been severely punished for even the smallest infractions as a young child, after his thirteenth year he became the victim of unimaginable torture at the hands of his owner. Manzano's story is heartrending; but, the power of his poetry gives us hope now as it did to those in the past who would gather to hear him read his verses aloud. He was able to pour all of his emotions into poetry that reached the hearts of many. Of course, he was censored by the government and even jailed for the possibilities his words might have influenced suspected slave uprisings (which did not occur). The author has brilliantly captured Manzano's voice and spirit in her own poems as she tells us the story of this amazing person. The author uses the voice of Manzano and various people from his world to tell us about the first half of a lifethat was, indeed, extraordinary. The haunting charcoal illustrations convey the plight of the slaves who endured lives of great misery. The back matter includes references, acknowledgements, historical notes, and some of Manzano's actual poetry. 2006, Henry Holt, Ages 10 up.
—Sheilah Egan
This lyrical biography of a little-known African Cuban slave highlights a seldom scrutinized period in Cuban history and is told in seven voices: that of the poet himself, his white owner, his owner's son, the poet's biological parents, the poet's godmother, and the plantation overseer. The poet slave was born into the household of a wealthy plantation and slave owner in Cuba in 1797, and although he is denied an education, he is a bright and observant child who learns much by watching others. Early on, he demonstrates a remarkable talent for poetry. Juan's original owner is kind, indulges him, and calls him her "own baby," but she often treats him more like a pampered pet. She eventually grants him his freedom, but upon her death, Juan's godmother, a cruel and capricious woman, takes arbitrary control and continues his enslavement, making the young man's life a hellish ordeal. Despite years of physical and mental abuse, Juan's ever hopeful spirit remains strong and focused on attaining his freedom. Eventually and against all odds, the courageous youth makes his getaway on horseback. Juan's literary genius is evident in the excerpts of his poems and although many of his autobiographical notes have been lost, it is known that he became an inspiring and influential writer much admired for the intrinsic beauty and sensitivity of his works and for his profound honesty and goodness. In impassioned and eloquent free verse, Engle captures not only the deep sensibilities of the various characters but also the enervating atmosphere of nineteenth-century Cuba. This captivating and bittersweet book is an exultant hymn to the resilience and strength of the human spirit, and it will make an wonderfuladdition to any young adult collection. VOYA CODES: 4Q 4P M J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2006, Henry Holt, 183p.; Illus. Source Notes., Ages 11 to 18.
—Delia Culberson
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-This is an absolutely lovely book about the unlovely subject of slavery. It is the biography of an extraordinary young man, with extraordinary intellectual powers, who was born into slavery in Cuba in 1797. Told in verse, it recounts the sufferings and trials of Manzano. As a boy, he was capable of memorizing and reciting poetic verses in many different languages. He could recount epic tales read to him, and in this way served as the entertainment for his mistress and her many guests. Later, when he became the property of a crueler mistress, his talents helped him endure numerous beatings and confinements. It is amazing that he was able to survive, and even more astonishing that he was able to maintain his humanity and his sensitive poetic nature. Manzano's sufferings are almost too painful to read about, but the experience is made bearable by Engle's skillful use of verse. Qualls's drawings are suitably stark and compelling, wonderfully complementing the text. This is an exceptional book on two levels. First, it introduces Manzano to an American public. Second, it introduces readers to slavery as it was practiced in a country other than the United States. Both are noteworthy. This is a book that should be read by young and old, black and white, Anglo and Latino.-Carol Jones Collins, Columbia High School, Maplewood, NJ Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A work born out of love for the man and his poetry, this biography-in-verse pays tribute to Juan Francisco Manzano, who lived between 1797 and 1853. Like many verse novels, the biography is told through alternating points of view, including Juan's as he grows from childhood to adulthood. Separated from his mother and father, Juan is reared by a slaveholder who adores his genius with words. When he is 11, she passes away. Even though she promised him his freedom upon her death, he remains enslaved, this time to a mentally unbalanced woman who abuses him unmercifully. Amazingly, Juan sustains himself through the tiny kindnesses of others, brief opportunities to make art of any kind and an endless reservoir of hope. This powerful and accessible biography may significantly engage adolescent learners but it could be too brutal for sensitive elementary-school readers. Simple charcoal drawings accompany the text and capture its emotional and geographical atmosphere. (Biography. 10-14)
winner of the Pura Belpré Medal for Under t Alma Flor Ada

Only a poet with Engle's delicate sensitivity could have presented the complexity of Manzano's life and the depth of his soul in such a brief, accessible, and enthralling book.
co-author of Remembering Cesar: The Legacy of Cindy Wathen

Every once in a while a book comes along that is so heart-achingly beautiful, so pure, you want to tear down the doors and make the world take notice. This is one of those rare works.
Juan Felipe Herrera

A rare and stunning account . . . a tour-de-force.

Product Details

Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 7.91(h) x 0.82(d)
Age Range:
12 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt


My mind is a brush made of feathers painting pictures of words

I remember all that I see every syllable 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 a whiff of the fragrance of words 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 my wings

Poetry cools me, syllables calm me

I read the verses of others the free men and know 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

My mother

María del Pilar Manzano a slave

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 even though he is not my father

Don Juan rules El Molino his plantation on this island of sugar and many other sweet illusions

These were my mother's duties:

dress La Marquesa undress her cool her skin with a palm-leaf fan answer questions never ask collect milk from new mothers in the huts near the fields slave milk, the lotion used for softening the skin 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 the darkness of Spaniards who pretend to be pale in our presence

When the noble ladies go out in public milk-soothed, eggshell-crusted masked and disguised we no longer look the same dark owner and dark slaves

Now my owner is ghostly inside her skeleton of powder but I, being only a poodle,

can watch

I am allowed to know these truths about shadow and bright

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

Free to marry Toribio de Castro a man also promised his freedom

My father is winged, like my mother oh, I envy them what will happen to me little bird 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 suitable for the theater and parties

So I bark on command

I learn to whine and howl in verse

I'm known as the smart one who never forgets

I can listen then recite every word

Listen, she says to her friends and the priest see how little Juanito can sing see how I've trained him watch him perform

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 voice

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 listen they are forgetful

I am rememberful

I remember there is also one more mother in my song a bird-mother caged but winged

Copyright © 2006 Margarita Engle

This text is from an uncorrected proof

Meet the Author

Margarita Engle is a Cuban American poet, novelist, and journalist whose work has been published in many countries. She is the author of young adult nonfiction books and novels in verse including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor Book, Hurricane Dancers, The Firefly Letters, and Tropical Secrets. She lives in northern California.

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.

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Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Heatheranne105 More than 1 year ago
Juan Francisco Manzano¿s story, told by Margarita Engle in The Poet Slave of Cuba, is one that will break your heart through his suffering and then mend it time and again through his hope and survival.

Through lyrical verse, Engle tells of Manzano¿s life not only through his eyes, but also through the people that were connected to him whether through familial ties or servitude. Manzano¿s first owner, Doña Beatriz, thought of Juan as simply a ¿poodle,¿ a toy to be played with and thrown away when no longer needed for entertainment. However, she did say that upon her death Juan would be free from slavery. This promise was not upheld by his new, cruel owner, La Marquesa de Prado Ameno, who felt that Juan should have been grateful for everything she ¿gave¿ him. Engle¿s words and Sean Qualls¿ images powerfully tell the reader the brutality and injustice Manzano faced as a slave.

Enlge has written an award winning book that will draw in readers of all ages. Readers catch a glimpse of the suffering Manzano and other salves faced daily in Cuba. Engle¿s poetry gives a depth to the story that an informational biography may not have. Her poetic prose allows the reader to not only know Manzano¿s story, but to also feel it.