The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox
Winner, 1974 Newbery Award
In 1840, thirteen-year-old Jessie is kidnapped from his New Orleans home and forced to play the fife for the slaves on a ship traveling to and from Africa.
It seemed to me that men who went to sea were all mad, pitting themselves against such hazards to win out against dying when death would take them anyhow.
About the Author
Paula Fox is the author of novels for both children and adults. In 1978 she won the Hans Christen Andersen Award for her lasting contribution to children's literature. A 2013 interview with The Telegraph reviews her unusual life, including a connection to Courtney Love.
For my project, I wanted to try a different perspective: looking straight down into the ship's hull where the slaves would be hidden. I used Popsicle sticks for the wooden slats of the ship. I painted the center hole black with eyes looking up. I added rough brown cord around the edges to simulate the various cords used on the ship for punishment, death, and just to keep the ship afloat.
On one level, this reads like a typical boy's adventure book, fast-paced with lots of action. The addition of the slaves adds a grim, violent undertone that made it difficult to read as an adult. The actual transport of slaves on ships is not an event that receives much detailed attention in children's fiction or history textbooks. The Paris Review has an excellent summary of the book.
A side note: When I started this Newbery book project in January, I decided to read the newer books first because I reasoned that the older ones might be harder to track down. This is the first book that my local library has not owned, which seems like a great testament to its children's book collection. Thanks to Longmont Public Library for lending this book!
If you read this book, I'd love to hear what you think in the comments.