Teacher's Guide: The Slave Dancer


It is 1840, and 13-year-old Jessie Bollier plays his fife on the docks of New Orleans to earn pennies for his mother. One day, Jessie is kidnapped and begins the most horrendous adventure of his young life. He finds himself on board The Moonlight, a slave ship bound for the coast of Africa. It is Jessie's job to play his life for the slaves so they can dance and retain some muscle tone. Jessie encounters the unspeakable on this journey that almost costs him his life.


"I was born in New York City in 1923. When I was eight, I moved to a Cuban plantation and stayed for two years. Before and after Cuba, I seldom lived anyplace longer than a year or so.
"In Cuba, I went to a one-room school with eight other students who ranged in age from six to fourteen. I attended nine schools before I was twelve, by which time I had discovered that public libraries embodies freedom, solace, and truth. Stories took me to other places. There was no television then, of course. Reading was everything to me. Wherever I went--except Cuba--there was a library. Even though my schools changed, I'd always find a library.
"When I was a young child, I was most influenced by my grandmother and her stories of her life in Spain. Some of her tales were comic, and some were tales of dread. What I recall most about her stories, told to me in fragments over the years I lived with her, was an underlying sorrowful tone, a puzzled mourning for the past. I also lived in the home of a minister in Upstate New York. He was the great person of my childhood. He taught me to read.
"I always wanted to write, ever since childhood. But I didn't start writing until I started a job teaching troubled children. Before teaching, I worked in a wide variety of jobs. At sixteen, I was reading books for Warner Brothers, including Spanish novels. I also was a salesgirl, a model, a worker in a rivet-sorting shop, and lastly a lathe operator at the Bethlehem Steel during World War II. I wrote my first adult novel, entitled Poor George, while I was living in Greece with my family. My first children's book, Maurice's Room, quickly followed.
"As I sit at my typewriter, working, there are moments when I feel I cannot write another word, when the sheer difficulty of discovering what I mean to say and how to say it is so daunting that I want to stop forever. I haven't' yet stopped. I stay in my chair, pen in hand, yellow-lined pad on the desk next to the machine, doodling or writing down fragments of sentences, hoping some unifying principle will, like a net, draw them together. On the whole, most wiring is the questions one asks oneself. What has happened to me? Does it have meaning? It's a peculiar process. One of the nicest things about writing is that you make yourself laugh. You don't have to wait for a comedian to come along!"
April 22, in New York City
A one-room school in Cuba, 3 years at Columbia University
Currently lives
Brooklyn, New York
Previous jobs
Teacher, journalist
Favorite . . .
hobbies? playing piano
Inspiration for writing
The "idea" for a story, more often that not, is something discovered by the reader while the writer continues to try to explain to herself where it came from! I am impelled toward writing by love stories, by the demands of my own imagination. I have been especially interested in writing about children as they encounter the daily surprises of life, frequent periods of loneliness, the inexplicability of events and the feelings they evoke


Pre-Reading Activity

Write the words slave ship on the board or overhead projector. Allow students to brainstorm what comes to mind when they see these words. From their list, generate a discussion of life aboard a slave ship. What were the conditions like? What were the responsibilities of the crew? For what were the slaves traded? What was the survival rate for the crew and the cargo? What were the American laws for importing slaves? What were the British and Spanish positions on the importing of slaves?

Thematic Connections

Survival -- Jessie is thrust into a situation that is fraught with dangers and discomforts. As Jessie says, "There was no one to save me..." (p. 22). What tactics and strengths did Jessie draw on to save himself? How did his father's tragic death help Jessie to survive?

Trust -- When Jessie first comes aboard The Moonlight, Benjamin Stout is the only crew member who shows kindness to Jessie. Yet, Jessie did not like Benjamin Stout. He says, "It was Purvis whom I was eager to see when I woke up in the morning, Purvis with his horrible coarse jokes, his bawling and cursing, Purvis, whom I trusted" (pp. 47-48). How was Jessie able to tell that Purvis was more trustworthy than Stout? Have you ever felt distrustful of someone even though that person was kind to you? Was your distrust valid?

Prejudice -- Jessie exclaims to Benjamin Stout that he hates this ship (p. 110). Stout replies that "Hatred poisons the soul. It is an incurable ailment" (p. 111). What is the irony in Stout's statement? What are some of the hatreds shown by Stout and the crew towards the blacks? How is Jessie affected by this hatred?

Guilt -- Jessie is asked to play his fife for the slaves. As he plays for the first time, he says, "I played on against the wind, the movement of the ship and my own self-disgust..." (p. 89). In what way does Jessie feel guilty about his involvement in this activity? How does Jessie cope with his feelings of guilt at the torment of the slaves versus his own need to participate in order to survive? How does this experience affect Jessie's feelings about music later on in his life?

Friendship -- Ras and Jessie notice each other even before their escape from the sinking ship, The Moonlight. They seem to understand each other despite the difference in their culture and language. Why do you think they connected with each other even though they had no real means of communication? How did the boys communicate during their struggle to survive the sinking ship and their time at Daniel's house? Why do you think the bond between the boys was so strong?

Interdisciplinary Connections

History -- The construction of a slave ship was complex. Paula Fox mentions many of its parts, such as the masts, anchor cables, the wooden pin, the hatch, wooden casks, etc. Instruct students to consult reference sources such as encyclopedias, CD-ROMS, etc. Have students draw and label a diagram of The Moonlight that Jessie might have drawn and then write a diary entry in which Jessie explains the diagram.

Language Arts -- Paula Fox creates vivid images with her use of similes and metaphors. For example, on page 78 Jessie describes his thirst by saying that his mouth was "as dry as ashes." Have students find other examples of figurative language in the novel. Instruct students to choose a character and to write original similes and metaphors describing that character.

Have students write the first paragraph of the novel omitting all adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. Compare and contrast the two paragraphs. Why are modifiers so important? Let students rewrite the paragraph inserting their own adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases where they made the omissions. Have students compare their paragraphs with their classmates.

Geography -- Allow students to gather information about map-making and design during the 1800s. Have students create a map showing the route that Jessie and the crew traveled while they were on The Moonlight. Encourage students to use designs similar to those that would have been used in the 1840s.

Math -- Instruct students to calculate the number of miles that Jessie traveled while he was on The Moonlight then convert the mileage into kilometers and have students compare calculations with their classmates. Students may want to add this information to the map they create in the geography activity.

Science -- Alone, Jessie travels through the woods from Mississippi to New Orleans, Louisiana. He says, "I was frightened in the woods, in the dark" (p. 170). Have students create a list of survival tips that might help someone hiking alone in the woods. Allow students to consult hiking guides, etc. Students might even consider Air Force training manuals, such as the ones used by Scott O'Grady, who survived in the woods after being shot down over Bosnia.

Teaching Ideas prepared by Jane O. Wassynger, English teacher, Greenville Middle School, Greenville, SC.


Paula Fox creates the atmosphere of the novel with descriptive language. She uses words like murky (p. 52), darkening, (p. 63), and blurred (p. 69). Have students find more examples of language that create atmosphere. Compose a class list. Have students use the words in original sentences that relate to the novel.


A Newbery Medal Book
A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year


*"Fox has woven a spellbinding tale of suspense and survival that will horrify as well as fascinate readers."--Starred, Library Journal

*"A story that movingly and realistically presents one of the most gruesome chapters of history, with all its violence, inhuman conditions, and bestial aspects of human nature--exposed but never exploited in Fox's graphic, documentary prose."--Starred, Booklist


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