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


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.


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

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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 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.

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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.”—The 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

“A rare and stunning account . . . a tour-de-force.”—Juan Felipe Herrera, winner of the Pura Belpré Honor for Laughing out Loud, I Fly: Poems in English and Spanish

“I not only learned about an exceptional life—I felt it. Soul-stirring and direct.”—Nancy Osa, winner of the Pura Belpré Honor for Cuba 15

“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.”—Alma Flor Ada, winner of the Pura Belpré Medal for Under the Royal Palms

“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.”—Cindy Wathen, co-author of Remembering Cesar: The Legacy of César Chávez

“This beautiful, unique biography reads and sounds like a symphony. Lyrical, informative, and inspiring.”—Teresa Dovalpage, author of A Girl Like Che Guevara

“Through this impassioned story we plunge into the inhuman depths of slavery and surge up with the Poet Slave to triumphant freedom.”—Anilú Bernardo, author of Jumping Off to Freedom

Winner of the Pura Belpré Medal

An ALA Best Book for Young Adults and Notable Children’s Books

Winner of the Americas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature

An IRA Children’s Book Award Winner and an IRA Teachers’ Choice

An NCTE Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts

A Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year

A New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age Selection

A CCBC Choice

Arizona Grand Canyon Young Readers Master List

A BCCB Blue Ribbon Book

A Booklist Editors’ Choice

A Booklist Top Ten Black History Book

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)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312659288
  • Publisher: Square Fish
  • Publication date: 3/15/2011
  • Language: Spanish
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 559,158
  • Age range: 12 - 18 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

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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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 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


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


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


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

a bird-mother


but winged



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.

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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

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?

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