Archive for December, 2020

The Poet Slave of Cuba

A biography of Juan Francisco Manzano

By Margarita Engle

Illustrated by Sean Qualls

ISBN 9780805077063

Henry Holt and Company

A verse novel is the perfect format for telling the story of the famous poet slave Juan Francisco Manzano.

The account of his life is horrendous. His treatment as a slave to the wealthy slave owner is told with deliberate, careful choice of words. The impact on the reader is gut-wrenching. The fact that the young slave survived such a harsh life is amazing and credit is given to his own courage, strength, and determination.

Juan was taken from his family and kept as a slave. His parents were freed but a wealthy slave owner kept him, even demanding that he call her mama. He was treated like a pet animal, worked hard but punished severely, cruelly, and beyond anything we could imagine.

Juan had the special ability to learn poems from other poets, sonnets, verses, all by heart. He could recite so much of what he heard and this gave him hope. It was not until many years later that he learnt to read himself and then write his own poems.

This is a harsh book but beautifully written. My stomach turned many times as I read this. The story is told in alternating voices from Juan and other people in his life, including his mother and father’s point of view, and even the slave owner, La Marquesa de Prado Ameno. What I find very interesting is how the slave owner tries to justify her actions in Juan’s life, making excuses for the treatment he receives at her command. Unbelievable! I wanted to shout at her, “leave him alon”e, wanted to yell at him to “run, escape”.

This is not a new book, but it is new to me and it has left me wanting to read more about the poet, and read more by the author.

One of my favourite extracts is right at the beginning (page3-4).

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

Marvellous Marvin

Inspired by a true story

By Nadia Lim

Illustrated by Fifi Colston

ISBN 9781775437246

Scholastic NZ

Oh my goodness, this is just delightful. Such a wonderful feel-good story and illustrated with just the cutest pictures.

Marvellous Marvin is the story of a very real chicken raised by cook and TV personality Nadia Lim and her family. He was rescued from the cold, harsh winters as an egg and raised inside the warmth of the house. Marvin seems to be one cheeky, well-loved chicken. He gets up to a bit of mischief; pinching food from his human brother’s plates, or eating up vegetables from the garden.

Illustrator Fifi Colston captures all his cuteness and personality perfectly. There is a lovely softness to the pictures. Marvin has a special friend who is with him throughout the pages, a delightful bumble bee who adds his own cuteness.

There is so much more to this book than Marvin’s story though. There is a double-page spread all about chickens. Then the double-page spread with Nadia’s pancake recipe and pages of photos of the real Marvin. There is a bit of a trend in publishing these days where many famous people are writing children’s books. Personally, it doesn’t always work but here, Nadia Lim’s debut book is an exception. It works well with its blend of facts, reality, family and story. Would be good to see more picture books about country life from Nadia and Fifi. A great combination.

Marvellous Marvin is out now and would make a wonderful Christmas gift. This is also a great choice for schools and pre-schools showing country life at its best. Marvin is so cute I want to reach out and pick him up for a cuddle.