Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

In The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Shirley Graham tells young readers about one of the most amazing personages in American literature. Having survived the loathsome conditions of a slave ship, Wheatley, a six-year-old African girl, had no advantages as she was put on the auction block in Colonial Boston. Yet providence, in the person of Susannah Wheatley, interceded, and Phillis not only escaped most of the wretchedness of slave life but also left a legacy of work that has earned for her the distinction, in many scholars’ estimation, of being the first significant African-American writer.

Graham uses the American revolutionary period as historical backdrop for Wheatley’s story, which covers the time period from 1761, when she arrived on a June market day in Boston Harbor, to 1784, the year of her death. Thus readers get a glimpse of American history as events unfold around the Wheatley family. With an engaging narrative style that uses dramatic scenes and dialogue, Graham’s book reads more like a fast-paced novel than a history text.

The Story of Phillis Wheatley is divided into two “stanzas” of six chapters each. The first covers the period from Wheatley’s arrival to 1771, when Susannah’s daugh-ter, Mary, married John Lathrop. The second stanza records her life as she became an adult and received recognition for her work. The first page of each chapter contains a pen-and-ink drawing by Robert Burns.


(The entire section is 466 words.)