Sarny is a 12 year old slave girl and this slim volume tells about the moment her life was forever changed by the arrival of a new slave named John. John offers to teach Sarny letters of the alphabet in exchange for tobacco. Sarny knows little of reading and writing, but knows it must be powerful stuff for the whites to so strictly forbid it. She agrees to the bargain, but is totally unprepared for the consequences.
It's remarkable what Paulsen is able to accomplish with such simple prose and in only seven short chapters. This is a really hard hitting little book that touches on some deeply disturbing aspects of slavery (as if the fact of it isn't enough). Not only are there several instances of extreme physical brutality against slaves, there are multiple mentions of the practice of breeding slaves. It's ugly stuff. The recommended reading age is 12 and up and, if reading independently, I'd agree with that assessment. However, I always say you can go a little younger when reading aloud and I read this with my 10 year old and she handled it just fine.