ISBN: 978-0593322888

G.P. Putnam's Sons/Penguin Random House
with Charles Waters

Interview with Charles Waters and Irene Latham


Kirkus A fictionalized account of the last slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States. Despite the U.S. ban on the importation of enslaved labor, plantation owner Timothy Meaher bet that he could bring in a shipload of Africans. In 1860, a ship called the Clotilda, under the leadership of Capt. William Foster, sailed from Mobile, Alabama, to the kingdom of Dahomey. There, Foster purchased 110 people—including a 2-year-old girl—who had been captured by the king's soldiers. Fourteen voices, including that of the ship, tell the tale of that journey across the Middle Passage and the years following their enslavement, first in the Alabama swamps, then on plantations, and finally in the free settlement of African Town (later renamed Africatown). The highly personal stories in verse reveal the different aspects of this illegal trade and the impact on both the Black enslaved people and the White crew members. Most well known is Kossola, who was long thought to be the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade. Latham and Waters use a different poetic form for each narrator, giving each a distinct personality. The Africans'attempts to hold true to their home cultures and traditions—most were Yoruba—as they try to adapt to their new reality come across most powerfully.

Enhanced by rich backmatter, this is a strong addition to literature about slavery. (map, authors'note, characters, Africatown today, timeline, glossary, poetry forms/styles, resources) (Verse novel. 12-18)

School Library Journal

Gr 7 Up: Human identity is built on the actions of those who came before, their histories creating a robust foundation upon which future generations can grow. In 1860, after the United States outlawed the importation of enslaved people, the Clotilda set sail across the Atlantic. It was on an illegal mission to collect one last shipment of enslaved people from Africa, and money and influence in the right places permitted the exchange to occur. Each day tested the resolve of those torn from their homeland: they were determined to survive in America while protecting the memories they held dear. This gripping novel recounts the story of the Clotilda's voyage across the vast Atlantic. Told from the perspectives of myriad characters directly and indirectly involved in this event, the story reads much like Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, where each unique voice contributes to the greater whole. Carefully executed passages appear in various forms of free verse and poetry, and each one is specific to the particular character represented. This choice makes the individual contributors not only come alive but also stand out from one another as the narrative progresses. Extensively researched and purposefully designed, this book brings together details of events from 1859 to 1901 and culminates in several pages of back matter that reinforce the entire work. VERDICT This honest, heartrending, and inspiring story is an important and necessary contribution to historical fiction collections for young adult readers.
Mary Lanni

Publisher's Weekly

Based on historical events and set between 1859 and 1901, Latham (D-39: A Robodog's Journey) and Waters (Dictionary for a Better World) pen an ambitious verse novel told in many voices. In spite of laws forbidding further importation of enslaved peoples into the United States, Timothy Meaher, owner of a shipping business, wagers $1,000 that he can smuggle "a good number" of enslaved people across the Atlantic and into Mobile, Ala., without being caught. As a result, Capt. William Foster sails the Clotilda to the Kingdom of Dahomey in 1860, buying 110 people from the nephew of Dahomey's king. Alternating among 14 voices, including that of the Clotilda, this novelization chronicles the journey of the 110 enslaved people across the Middle Passage and their subsequent lives, including a dream of returning home to Africa and, eventually, the establishment of free African Town, "a town far enough from Mobile that it feels/ like de center of the world, but also separate/ from de world." Though the myriad narrative voices can sound indistinct, the authors employ a range of poetic forms, resulting in an insightful, quickly paced telling that centers tradition and resilience. Abundant back matter includes an authors'note, glossary, timeline, list of poetry forms/styles employed, and more.

School Library Connection

Kossolo lived in Bantè before he was taken by soldiers of the king of Dahomey and sold as a slave to American buyers. Timothy made a bet that he could break the law and, under the radar of many countries, bring a ship full of enslaved people to America. William was the captain of the Clotilda and traversed the Atlantic Ocean to buy people from Glele, the king of Dahomey. The Clotilda was the last ship to bring enslaved people from Africa to the United States just prior to the Civil War, even though importing people had been banned since 1806. In this work of fiction written in verse, the many characters tell the story of this last group of people who were taken from Africa and sent to America to become slaves. Determined to keep their traditions alive, the group of Africans bought land and created African Town once the Civil War ended. The authors have done a remarkable job of weaving the stories of the characters together and telling the story from both the perspective of the slaves and the people who orchestrated their purchase. Though this story is fictional it is based on a vast amount of research that was done on the actual people who participated in this story. Kossolo, Timothy, William, and several others were all real people who gave interviews and kept journals that the authors utilized for their research. African Town itself is also a real place and this story will inspire readers to do some research to find out more about the real events that took place. The voice of the characters is strong and, though flipping between the large number of characters takes a little getting used to, the journey itself is not to be missed.
Robyn Young, School Librarian, Avon High School, Avon, Indiana
Highly Recommended


Inspired by the true story of the last American slave ship, African Town is an epic novel in verse told from multiple first-person points of view, each one written in a different verse form. The story begins in 1860 when Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Alabama riverboat captain, makes a $1,000 wager that he can illegally smuggle a ship's worth of enslaved workers back to Mobile without the authorities' knowledge. The action then moves to the West African kingdom of Dahomey, where readers meet 19-year-old Kossola, the story's protagonist, who will become one of 110 Africans kidnapped and sold to Meaher's representative. After a hideously arduous 40-day voyage aboard the ship Clotilda, the Africans arrive clandestinely in Alabama, where they are sold into slavery. The novel then follows the intertwined lives of Kossola and some half-dozen others, all of whom were "passengers" on the Clotilda. Readers see them gain their freedom and obsessively save their money until they can buy multiple plots of land adjacent to each other, thereby founding African Town in the early 1870s. This is by no means the end of the story, which goes on to chart the fully realized lives of its characters until 1901. African Town is a compelling novel that doubles as an important historic document, invaluable for both classroom use and independent reading.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

Different poetic forms are assigned to various historical figures in this verse novel that tracks the journey of the last Africans brought illegally to the U.S. in 1860, through their kidnapping, their enslavement, and finally their founding of Africa Town near Mobile, Alabama. Two of the major voices are Kossola, a young African on the verge of being initiated to oro (the governing group of men) in his village Bantè, and William Foster, the captain of the slave-trading ship Clotilda. Other characters step forward to give context, including King Glele, who orders the raid on Kossola's village, shipping baron Timothy Meaher, who funds the trip, and Clotilda herself, who is horrified by the tragedy of her cargo. Unfortunately, these voices meld together with no real distinction in the middle of the novel, and the pain of the enslaved people and villainy of those responsible are mostly blunted; it's not until the final section, which focuses on the development and building of community in Africa Town, that the individual narratives crystalize. At that point, however, we see a rich blossoming of characters and a thoughtful portrait of how trauma informs and inhibits identity making. The end matter is a wealth of fascinating information, from the author's note that details Waters and Lathams'research process, to a list that elaborates on the characters' lives, to an account of what modern day Africatown (formerly Africa Town) looks like; further resources are also provided for young researchers.

Jone Rush MacCulloch

A Social Justice Books Project title