4.26.2008

Reading Life 30

The Poet Slave: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Sean Qualls
Though the ending of this biography in poems is on the weak side, the whole is a fairly amazing book. I must say that Engle did most certainly deserve the Pura Belpré Award. In this book, we meet various characters, the focus of whom is young Juan Manzano, El Pico de Oro (the Golden Beak) who is slave to La Marquesa de Prado Amena, a woman who believes the world revolves around her, whose Spanish skin is as dark as the very Cuban slaves she owns. But Juan is "special," the child of her old age, she calls him. And to do a great and kind deed, she announces one day that both Juan's mother and father can, for 300 pesos, purchase their freedom, and any and all of their yet unborn children too will be born free; but this boy who has an uncanny ability to memorize and then to recite practically anything he hears (including opera, poetry, and words in languages strange to him), he will remain in her stable, if you will. It isn't long before the marquesa grows tired of the boy, who is growing older and no longer such a novelty. Especially when he begins to compose his own poetry and desires to learn to read and write, though he must do so on the sly. The woman, this slave owner, sees nothing wrong with punishing Juan for anything she feels is a misdeed on his part. And the punishment in harsh, to say the least. Like I said, the ending is a bit of a let down, but only because Engle finishes too quickly, it seems. A great work, though!

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