The Slave Dancer

by Paula Fox

Other authorsEros Keith (Illustrator)
Paper Book, 1973



Local notes

PB Fox




Scarsdale, N.Y., Bradbury Press [1973]


Kidnapped by the crew of an Africa-bound ship, a thirteen-year-old boy discovers to his horror that he is on a slaver and his job is to play music for the exercise periods of the human cargo.


Newbery Medal (Medal Winner — 1974)
Vermont Golden Dome Book Award (Nominee — 1974-1975)
Gouden Griffel (Zilveren — 1976)


Original publication date


Physical description

176 p.; 24 cm

Media reviews

Toni Buzzeo (Audiofile, March 1997) In a tale at once fascinating and horrible, young Jessie suffers capture and indenture on a slave ship. His job is to "dance" the slaves by playing his fife while they're forced to engage in daily movement. Actor Peter MacNicol delivers a powerful reading of
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this horrific tale. His Captain Cawthorn, terrifying in volume and attitude, creates in the listener the same tension that Jessie feels throughout the journey. Masterfully, MacNicol allows Shipmate Stout's obsequiousness to creep slowly upon the listener while simultaneously revealing the affection behind Shipmate Pervis's defiant gruffness. Packed with emotion, MacNicol's first-person narration in Jessie's voice is moving and believable. Judiciously employed symphonic music and the notes of a lone fife heighten the tension throughout. T.B. Winner of AUDIOFILE Earphones Award (c)AudioFile, Portland, Maine 1996 (Orig. 1973), Random House Audio, Four cassetes, 3 hrs., Retail pak, $18.99.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member Whisper1
This1974 Newbery Medal award winning book is by far the most compelling, graphic and intensely dark Newbery I've read. Having said this, you may wonder why I highly recommend this dark tale full of vivid, violent details.

The answer is simply this: Slavery was abhorrently wrong and this book
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captures the gruesomeness of the slave trade without stopping to the real temptation of pounding home a truth to the point wherein the reader closes the pages. Never exploiting the power of the evil, but honestly capturing the horror, Paula Fox did a marvelous job of addressing man's inhumanity to man. In 152 short pages the author accomplished what many writers cannot do with 500 pages of text.

In 1840 Jessie Bollier lives in New Orleans with his hardworking seamstress mother and his lovable sister. Veering off the path when returning from his Aunt's house, he is kidnapped and taken aboard a slave ship. He is a young 13 year old white male who, while aware of the dirty business of slavery, had no idea what was in store for him or the slaves.

Playing the fife during the day to earn extra money to help his mother renders him a target of the nasty traders who capture him and stow him on the ship. His job is to play for the slaves when they are allowed a bit of sunshine on deck. Providing sunshine is not done as a kind deed, rather the precious cargo is forced to dance in order to provide stronger muscle tone when they are sold at the final destination of Cuba. As Jessie witnesses the injustice, his notes become disjointed and shrill and he is beaten if he does not earn his keep.

Jessie witnesses fights, treachery and hostility between ship mates. As the ship travels to Africa and then to Cuba, the author's excellent writing, provides clear, crisp images that anchor the reader while the ship is tempest tossed and hell bent toward finishing their destination The journey becomes darker and deeper as evil resides above the deck and 98 slaves witness terror below.

When Jessie asserts that if the slaves are not treated properly there will not be more trading with the salves all gone, the response of a crew mate is simply stated as "The slaves are never gone!' All of Africa is a bottomless sack of blacks." Thus, with one sentence the author captured the incredible evil misconception that life does not matter...that it does not matter at all!!!!!

Another example of excellent writing are these paragraph:

For some time after the sun had set, the sky remained the color of rope. The ship lay steady on the glass-lie surface of the water which was pricked, now and then, into small ripples when a seabird struck its surface.

A few lanterns were strung up to give us light. They made a mystery of the ship -- we floated like a live ember in a great bowl of darkness.

This is anything but a light, easy-breezy YA book. It is nonetheless a part of history that cries to be told with bitter, angry tears of righteous indignation. And, if as the final page is turned, the reader does not come away with the brutality of American slavery, then there is something dramatically wrong with our society.

This is an author I'll be sure to read again.

FIVE big stars!
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LibraryThing member klburnside
This is one of the most disturbing children's books I have ever read. It would even rank up there with disturbing adult books. It is about a thirteen year old white boy who is kidnapped from New Orleans and forced to work on a slave ship. He helps with general ship activity, but his main job is to
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play his fife for the slaves so they dance, both to entertain the ship's crew and so they get exercise so they are worth more at market. The boy is subjected to physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the crew as he is forced to watch and participate in many horrific events. I felt physically ill while reading much of the book. It is always odd to give a book like this four stars, but it was well-written and evoked powerful emotions about a very real historical topic. The 1974 Newberry winner, but I wouldn't recommend it for children.
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LibraryThing member meki
This story is based on the time when slaves were around. This is a very good book but at some points it gets a bit monotonous. This story is about a boy who is on a slave ship and he has to "dance" the slaves.
LibraryThing member goodnightmoon
Quite uneven, for me. Many sections forced me to reread to capture the meaning, and some touched me. I didn't feel terribly connected to Jessie, but he was a very sympathetic narrator.
LibraryThing member moonstormer
This was a book that stayed in my mind for years. An amazing story that tells the story of the slave trade in a dramatic way, yet is still geared towards children. Highly recommended!
LibraryThing member tiburon
This is a wonderfully written novel with excellent details about life aboard a slave ship.
LibraryThing member Bbanach
This book is about a white boy who is kidnapped by some underground
slave traders. They make him work on their boat. They travel from the U.S to Africa to buy and transport black men, women, and children back to the U.S to sell them on the black market. This book tells about the day to day lives of
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these men through the eyes of the young kidnapped boy.

I think this book is well written. I like how it gives another side the the slave trade world. You don't read a book very often that tells about how the slaves got to the U.S.

We could have a geography lesson about where the U.S is and where Africa is. We could also have a lesson on how long it takes to get from the U.S to Africa in that time, and how short it takes us now.
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LibraryThing member debnance
Jessie Bollier is kidnapped, taken from his mother and sister, and left stranded aboard a slave ship, on its way to Africa to acquire a boatload of slave cargo. He has been taken in order to play the fife on the ship, to play the fife for the slaves, to entice them to dance, to keep the slaves fit
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while incarcerated on the ship. This was a grueling tale to read. Jessie is in misery. His fellow members of the crew are in misery. The slaves are in misery. There can be no happy stories in this book and there can be no happy endings. But, along the way, Jessie meets a few people who show tiny sparks of humanity and give him hope.
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LibraryThing member Girl_Detective
Jessie Bollier is a 13yo boy in 1840 New Orleans, kidnapped into service on a slave transport ship because he knows how to play a fife. As he gets his sea legs, Jessie gets to know the crew, and in the process begins to see his first glimmer of how complex human nature and relations are. Purvis,
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who kidnapped him, is funny and helpful with advice. Another man, Stout, is superficially kind, but inconsistent. Once the ship reaches Africa and takes on its live cargo of slaves, Jessie's awareness is pushed even further, as he's forced to play his fife to "dance" the slaves as they get periodic exercise on the ship.

The slimness of the book belies the heavy themes it holds. Fox's clear, spare writing conveys Jessie's terror, horror and dawning knowledge of the depths of human cruelty. There are certain things--the occasional kindness of others to Jessie, beautiful days at sea, moments of connection with others--that keep the reader from drowning utterly in the frequently gruesome history this book relates. Highly recommended for adults and older children.
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LibraryThing member vpliving
Fox, Paula. The Slave Dancer. 1973.

Jesse Bollier is a thirteen-year-old boy living in New Orleans in 1840 when slave traders hear him playing his fife on the wharf. They kidnap Jesse and take him on their ship The Moonlight, where he must play his fife during the slave's exercise periods to help
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the slaves stay in good physical and mental condition in preparation of their sale at auction.

This novel is a powerful, extremely descriptive work of historical fiction. Due to the complexity of the characters and their relationships in this novel, this book should not be for readers younger than middle school. The author describes the hardships of slavery, the dark side of human nature and human psychology. She touches on the politics and economics of the slave trade during that time period and makes the horror of it all extremely clear. Each character on the ship had their own strong personality from pure evil, to insane, to ashamed.

Newbery Medal
Zilveren Griffel
A Horn Book Fanfare Best Book
1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up
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LibraryThing member kthomp25
Jessie Bollier, a thirteen year-old boy living in New Orleans, is pressed into service on a slave ship to play his fife for the slaves to dance to daily to help keep them as healthy as possible.

This is not a book I would recommend for children. The only reason I can give for this to be considered
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as a children's book it that it is told through the eyes of a boy.

It depicts complex and dark relationships among the crew members with little explanation of any of their motives. The only slave the reader gets to know at any depth is Ras, and that happens only near the end of the book.

This is not an enjoyable reading experience, although realistic.
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LibraryThing member avcr
A thirteen year old boy named Jesse has walked to his Aunt Agatha’s house to fetch candles at his Mother’s request so that she can have enough light (it’s nighttime) to embroider lavish lords and ladies bowing, prancing horses upon apricot fabric for a rich customer. Walking home, he is
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kidnapped from his Louisiana home by Purvis and Claudius to become the slave dancer aboard a ship sailing to buy slaves from Africa. What ensues is the explication of the ill treatment and mental precepts of the time juxtaposed against Jesse’s understanding of the situation; how his friendship with Ras and Daniel cement his decision to fight with the North, and why he cannot stand to hear his own son play a comb wrapped in tissue; riveting, horrifying, a story that should never be forgotten.
If You Liked This, Try: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, Sounder by William H. Armstrong, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George.
Awards: Newbery, 1974.
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LibraryThing member sylvatica
What an absolutely brutal book. I rarely unrecommend books, but this one I can’t, in good conscience, suggest that anyone read. While brutality is not necessarily a bad thing in a book about illegal slave trade in the late 1800s, it seemed like it was horrific with very little information or
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redeeming value given in return. If you want to know more about that time period, read something like Roots, watch Amistad, read just about anything else. I am guessing there are some more recent books that show the reality of the time more accurately with less unnecessary horror. (pannarrens)
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LibraryThing member barbarapatt
The Slave Dancer, by Paula Fox, is the story of Jessie,a 13-year-old boy who is kidnapped from his home in New Orleans, by slave traders. Jessie plays a fife and the kidnappers wanted him on their ship to play while slaves were forced to dance on the deck of the ship. This was meant to keep the
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slaves active and strong on the long voyage across the ocean since they were very cramped and unable to move most of the time. The slave traders were only interested in the money they could make for each slave once they were back in the United States. Jessie is forced to grow up quickly as he encounters corrupt and evil men and must face his collusion in the immoral enterprise.

I enjoyed the book as it was well-written, but it is hard to hear about the cruelty and inhumanity that was this part of our nation's history. I tried to imagine what it was like for a young boy to be taken from his home and forced to participate in something so evil. I was glad the author had a "happy" ending which would be easier for a young reader to absorb.

As far as classroom extensions, this would be a perfect novel to have as part of a study of the slave trade and the history leading up the the Civil War.

Another good use of this book would be as a character study of Jessie, his home life, how he changed during the ordeal of his kidnapping, his relationships aboard ship and his connections with the slaves, particularly Ras, the boy close to his age.
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LibraryThing member b.duggins13
This book is about a boy name Jesse who play a fife. One day someone asked him to play it for him. Later that night he was kidnapped and place on a slave ship. They wanted him to play for the slaves so they can dance to keep them in shape. Jesse did not want to do this at all. He thought it was
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horrible and did not want any part of it. He was upset with the fact they trade slaves for tobacco and rum. Also that they sell them as well. After four months of fear and torture he had to face things that will stay with him for the rest of his life.
My personal reaction to this book was that Jesse was a strong man and did what he had to do to stay alive.
One classroom extension could be making your own ship that Jesse was riding on.
Second classroom extension could be doing a dance routine (good for health)
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LibraryThing member engpunk77
Shows the horrors of the slave trade, particularly focusing on the brutality and harsh conditions on board the ships that bring the slaves from Africa to America.
LibraryThing member AltheaAnn
This one was important to me, as a child.
Beyond presenting historical facts, I felt that it really let me understand the true horror of the slave trade.
LibraryThing member hlevy
Jessie is a young boy who lives in New Orleans. Against his mother's rules, he takes the long way home one day, playing on his fife as he went. Jesse found himself wrapped in sail cloth, kidnapped and brought aboard a slave ship. His job on the ship is to be the slave dancer, playing music so that
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the slaves can dance to keep them exercised during the long voyage.

Jessie didn't care for the idea of slavery to begin with, and the horrors of the reality on the slave ship sickened him. He sees the inhuman way the slaves are treated while the men on the ship can only focus on the money they will get for their efforts. The greed and brutality get worse every day, and Jesse must continue to dance the slaves to keep himself alive. In the final scenes, Jessie experiences the worst horrors of his excursion.

Telling the story of the horrors of slavery through the eyes of a young white boy could be difficult, but Paula Fox found a sympathetic character in Jesse. He, himself, has been enslaved to these men on the ship, yet he is treated fairly well. As the story unfolds, we experience through Jessie's eyes the truth about a dark period in American history.
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LibraryThing member fuzzi
Somewhat interesting story told in first-person by a 13yo boy who is "Shanghaied" by the crew of a slave ship. Portions of the tale were a little difficult to follow, possibly due to the author's uneven writing style.
LibraryThing member JanaRose1
Jessie is taken from his mom and sister in New Orleans to play his fife on a slave ship. The slaves, in order to keep healthy, are forced to dance to the music he plays. Thrust into a dangerous situation, Jessie must survive treacherous crew members, a sadistic captain and the horrors of the slave
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trade. Well written, the book is engaging and its characters realistic. I believe this book would be highly appealing to teenage boys for its flair of adventure and danger.
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LibraryThing member Omrythea
Thirteen year old Jessie is kidnapped by slave traders. His "job" aboard the ship is to play his fife to make the slaves "dance" so that they will stay healthy and fetch a better price. This dismal tale outlines his struggles, both physical and mental as he witnesses the atrocities of humankind and
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the brutality of the open sea. A fairly quick read, edgy in many ways.
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LibraryThing member froxgirl
Ron DeSantis and those who are afraid to have white children traumatized by the slave trade will try to go back in time and and ban this, but it is a chilling tale deserving of its Newbery Medal awarded in 1974. While playing his fife in New Orleans in the 1840's, an impoverished thirteen year old
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boy, Jessie, is kidnapped and brought aboard an American slave ship, The Moonlight, and forced to play music to keep the captured African men, women, and children from Benin in motion. Most of the sailors hate their lives and the officers aboard the ship, and when all hands but Jessie and Ras, an African boy his age, drown in a shipwreck, the reader will feel little remorse. The book is based upon actual historical documents and is probably best suited for 6th graders and up, and should be incorporated into a school lesson.
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