Book talk:At first, Beverley didn't know who his father was. When he found out that he was the President of the United States of America, he wanted to tell everyone. But he couldn't. He wasn't even allowed to talk about it to his closest friends. Of course, some people suspected the truth, but no one talked about it out loud. It wouldn't look good if people found out that the famous Thomas Jefferson had children with one of his slaves. Beverley's father was also his owner, and if he ever wanted to escape to freedom he had to keep his family a secret.
Rocks my socks: I don't know how Bradley does it, but somehow she manages to take an incredibly complex and little-known aspect of American history and bring all of its nuances to light. And she makes it all engaging and accessible for a middle grade crowd. I love the way she switches narrators as the story progresses so that it can be told over a long period while retaining a young person's perspective. Every character in the novel is layered and complex and resists easy categorization and stereotypes. The historical research is impeccable and illuminating in areas ranging from the office of the presidency to race relations to economics. I learned so much from this novel, yet I still left with more questions than I had to begin with, making me want to go out and learn more. As far as I'm concerned, that is the mark of great literature.
Rocks in my socks: none
Every book its reader: While the novel does deal with some violence and references to Sally going to Jefferson's bed every night there's nothing gratuitous. It deals with a lot of complex issues, but if it's handled as a class read or given to mature readers I say it would be fine for fifth grade and up. I read it as part of my faculty and staff book club and everyone loved it. It's told from a child's perspective, but there's plenty for adults to consider and talk about as well. I'd give it to anyone who wants to learn more about American history.
There's an article in Nature about the DNA evidence that Jefferson had children with Sally Hemings
NPR has a story on slaves in Monticello including the Hemingses
Monticello has its own website with great pictures of the estate and further information
The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed is a great non-fiction book on the subject. You can see a video interview with the author on YouTube.
Source: Copy received as part of faculty/staff book club