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

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  922 ratings  ·  226 reviews
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
Hardcover, 192 pages
Published April 4th 2006 by Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
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Jan 28, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: latino-american
After devouring The Poet Slave of Cuba in an afternoon, I can see why it was awarded the Pura Belpre Award. Based on his own autobiographical notes, Margarita Engle retells the story of Cuban poet Juan Francisco Manzano. Engle was haunted by the life and poetry of Manzano and felt it’s reliving could only be told in verse. She captures the intense and brutal childhood of an enslaved child poet with her own poignant words and the haunting black and white sketchings of Sean Qualls.

Born into slave
Jan 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
Such a tragic life, to want to be so possessed by his owner because of his gifts and to be so harshly punished for every little slight that was the over-reactive imaginings of a cruel woman.

Margarita Engle brings Juan's early years to life with her trademark lyrical prose, an elegy to the poet slave Juan Francisco Manzano.

Juan Francisco Manzano was born into the household of a wealthy slave-owner in Cuba in 1797.

We know details about the early years of his life thanks to a collection of his auto
Kristy K
Short, heartbreaking, and infuriating, yet somehow tinged with hope.
Off to find his poetry now.
Just when I was impressed by Engle's The Firefly Letters she did it again.


This was a biography told in verse about the poet Juan Francisco Manzano who was a Cuban poet and slave. Engle had done a lot of research into this poet and took is upon herself to educate the world about this man. About the way he was treated by colonialism.

Juan constantly, throughout the book, refers to his body not being his. The body that his soul inhabits is not his. It belongs to his mistress. He is at h
Jun 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
This was a powerful biography about Juan Francisco Manzano (1797–1854), a 19th century Cuban poet who wrote an autobiography, two books of poetry and a play. His book, The Autobiography of a Slave, the only existing documented account of 19th-century Cuban slavery, is also the only existing narrative account of slavery in Spanish America. This biography was inspired by his work and written in verse by Cuban-American poet, novelist and journalist Margarita Engle.

If you’re afraid of trying a book
Sep 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry, non-fiction
4.5 🌟

It's a very poignant biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, a slave who has a gift with words & a good memory. Tho it is titled as a biography, it's only consist of probably half his life and the rest was told in the historical note in the end of the book.

The poems by the author are really compelling in telling the story of the cruelty of Manzano's second master. Here I quote:

somehow she imagines
that his dark thoughts
when really it is exactly
the opposite.

She is the one
with a mind
that ne
Sep 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was so sad to read. What this boy-to-man went through was despicable and heartbreaking. I cannot begin to imagine the horrendous things slaves experienced during their lifetime. This is a middle grade book so the content is not as bad as it would have been if it was for adults.

This book focuses on a slave named Juan Francisco Manzano of Cuba who grew up to become a writer and poet. He was a gifted child and could recite anything and everything he heard. His owner took care of him and upon
Aug 02, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: childrens, poetry, ya
This is an accessible and enjoyable verse biography of Juan Francisco Manzano. I liked Engles's The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom slightly better, but this work accomplished its aims effectively. Manzano was a poet of colonial Cuba, born a slave and learning the art of verse secretly. His life is captured in this series of first-person poems, mostly narrated by him, but also including the voices of the woman who first owned him and set him free at her death, his mother, hi ...more
Aly Gutierrez
Dec 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing
• Book Summary
-The Poet Slave of Cuba is a lyrical biography of an escaped Cuban slave who went on to become a renowned poet. Juan Francisco Manzano was born a Cuban slave. Although denied an education, Manzano had a knack for poetry. His poetry reflected the beauty of the world around him, while also depicting the dark, haunting life of being a slave.

• Pura Belpre Award

• Grade level, interest level, Lexile

• Appropriate classroom use (subject area)
-Teach about multicultural slavery. S
A powerful novel in verse.
Doug Glenning
Dec 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Such a good, but sad story! It was interesting to see this angle of Cuban history. It worked so well in poetry form I cannot.imagine it as a traditional narrative!
Feb 02, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
This review pertains to the 2006 hardcover edition, suggested for grades 7 and higher.

This 2008 Pura Belpre Medal winner is the biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, a Cuban slave. The perspective of the poetic narrative shifts between Juan and the other characters in the book. His first wealthy owner, Doña Beatriz describes Juan as being “much cleaner than poodles and parrots or the Persian cats that are always shedding their fur on my pillows…” (p. 13). Denied an education, Juan has a talent fo
Jul 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: latino-latina

Format: Book, Free Verse Poem, Biography
Age level: Early high school

The Poet Slave of Cuba is a biography of Juan Francisco Manazano. Juan was born in 1797, a slave to a wealthy landowner. His first master died shen he was 11 yeard old. Although Juan had been promised his freedom, he was sent to a new master, la Marchesa de Prado Ameno.
La Marchesa was said to be crazy and was exceptionally cruel. Juan suffered many horrible punishments at he
May 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
I am have a difficult time finding words to describe what i thought about this book. The poetry was beautiful and descriptive. The story it told was sad and depressing. The poems from others in the book - Juan's mother, the overseer, Don Nicholas and La Marquesa De Prado Ameno give us their thoughts about Juan's treatment but do nothing to soften how I feel about the injustices that were lain upon him. I found myself praying that Juan would either escape or die so that he would not have to suffe ...more
NSAndrew Liebergen
Nov 19, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
The Biography of the Cuban slave is a dramatic and visual ride through Cuba in 1797. Born into a household of a wealthy slave owner, Juan Francisco Manzano spent his early years by the side of a woman who made him call her Mama, even though he had a mother of his home. Juan was not allowed to become educated. Yet through all his adversity he showed an exceptional talent for poetry. His verses show his vision of the beautiful idealistic world, yet at the same time uncover the brutality and savage ...more
Grades 8-12
Audio read by Cabreri, Nunez, Rodriguez, and Santana

A biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, The Poet Slave of Cuba is a testament to the power of artistic expression and how it can transcend evil. The novel pieces together the story of the poet born into slavery in 1797. He possessed the great talent of being able to recall and perform every poem he heard, and even though he was denied education, he learned how to write poetry in an invented language, paint, make pastries, and sew. He
Book Concierge
Subtitle: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano. Manzano was born into the household of a wealthy slaveowner in Cuba in 1797. The young Juan showed a talent for poetry, and he was used by his owner as entertainment for her friends; he recited poetry, sang opera and performed for them. Dona Beatriz gave Juan’s mother and father their freedom, but kept the “child of my old age” with her. Her promise that Juan, too, would be freed on her death was not kept; he was sent to the Marquesa de Prado Amen ...more
Mar 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I would recommend this book for grades 7 through 10. The life of a nineteenth century Cuban slave, Francisco Manzano is the focus of this book written in free verse. Although he lived in a brutal world, he learned how to read and write poetry. The story begins when he is six years old when his parents are set free. He is forced to perform in front of guests, like a pet. His owner dies five years later and he is given to a crazy woman who locks him up and beats him. He doesn't escape until he is ...more
La Keesha
Dec 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Juan Francisco Manzano was a favorite in my household for many personal reasons. When I was a child his poems both fascinated and frightened me and as an adult they still do; his words just resonate. This book made me want to find his poems again and I did on a tear filled night while my household slept. Race, love, hope, yearning and pain are all present in his works and this IRA Children’s and Young Adult’s Book Award for Young Adult–Nonfiction (2007), Américas Award (2006) and Pura Belpré Med ...more
Apr 30, 2019 rated it it was ok
I loved The Firefly Letters and Bravo!: Poems About Amazing Hispanics. My mom is Cuban and I am very curious about Cuba and its history. I am also in awe of stories of people who rise above their station and leave their mark on the world. All of these things raised my expectations for this slim novel in verse.

Unfortunately, this felt more like a book about the horrors of slavery than a book about the poet referenced in the title. Readers only get a glimpse of Manzano's poetry in a postscript th
Q_Jill Burke
Mar 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is a beautifully written book about a boy slave in Cuba in 1797. The boy, Juan, had a talent for poetry even though he was not educated. He was promised freedom by his first owner, but at her death, he comes to live with La Marquesa De Prado Amena who is never satisfied. She has him whipped and tortured for as little as taking a bath. Even so, she cannot take the gift of verse from him.

This would be a great story to read with high school students. It reminded me of "Day of Tears" by Julius
Feb 18, 2010 rated it it was amazing
A poetically beautiful piece of juvenile literature capturing the early years of Juan Francisco Manzano's life. This work, written from multiple perspectives (in verse), chronicles the hardships and overcome adversities of the enslaved, Cuban poet, who lived during the 18th and 19th century in Spanish colonized Cuba. A must read for anyone interested in both juvenile literature and minority culture. ...more
Alyse Liebovich
May 22, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry
I found this book in my library collection when creating a display for National Poetry Month, a day after returning from a week in Cuba.
I liked the afterword--bio info, historical notes--more than the actual poetry, but I definitely appreciate what the author was trying to do. Learned about a specific time period in Cuban history that I had not learned anything about while actually in Cuba, so that added even more questions to my long list.
Nov 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This book was brilliant in the way it was composed. Manzano (the slave poet)endured a life that was more than worth telling, and the author did a beautiful job of connecting the biographical information with the spirit of the slave poet in verse format. This was highly original and a unique concept to deliver a powerful biographical portrait of a genius that far too many people are unaware of.
Andrew Long
Jan 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book came out of no where for me. It is one that really pulls you in and gets you to hope for the best. It is unbelievable how people can be so detached from reality and yet be surrounded by those who are not. Great read!
Dec 25, 2008 rated it really liked it

Completely written in prose, awesome read.
Tara Crump
Jan 23, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: mc-lit-520
I listened to the Audible version of this book. I had a hard time keeping up with the story, so I imagine my rating is a bit skewed. I think I would enjoy the text version of this book.
An interesting and beautiful biography. Written in verse, this is a deeply emotional and moving account of his life. Loved the writing style! Really enhanced by gorgeous illustrations!
Jun 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Beautiful, sad, and lingering.

This was about a poet and a person I knew nothing of, during a time I don’t think much of, and in a country I know very little history about.

Such a wonderful, informative way to express the history of poetry in the Caribbean. Another thing I didn’t know about until reading this book.
Oct 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I love this author and illustrator both, and it is really well done. Slavery is terrible, though, and for all the magic of the book, there are some hard things in here.
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Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American poet, novelist, and journalist whose work has been published in many countries. She lives with her husband in northern California.

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