tremendous hope permeates this important story

by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson - Hyperion Books, 2006
ages 4 years to grownup / coffee table, powerful lives, s.o.s.e.

Using an imagined conversation between God and Harriet Tubman, this book tells the true story of how Harriet found her way to freedom from slavery - and how she helped so many others to do the same. 

It’s just a lovely book to settle into and let the words and pictures swirl about as they do a very important work. 

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in 1820. She's famous for both escaping herself and helping somewhere around 300 others to flee slavery too. (She died in 1913 – amazing to think how recently this all happened.)

Harriet’s own beliefs that she was led by God are reflected beautifully here. God’s words are separated from her thoughts and actions only by typeface, which is rather lovely. It makes the story flow easily, but it also points to how much Harriet and God were acting as one.

Slavery is, of course, a very tricky subject for a picture book to negotiate. But it’s enormously helpful to tell the story in as many ways as possible as a hedge against racism. And so this is not just a beautiful book – it’s an important one.

It's sensitive - there's just enough of the horrors of slavery to alert young readers to the problem without, hopefully, keeping them up at night. For example:

…Master owns me, drives me like a mule. Now he means to sell me south in chains to work cotton, rice, indigo, or sugarcane, never to see my family again.

There are also just enough references to the personal cost that Harriet had to be willing to pay to escape:  She left her husband; she didn’t know if she would see her family again; she lived in extreme deprivation and uncertainty. 

These things are mentioned and not glossed over, but they take a backseat to the central theme of Harriet’s bravery and her continued belief and trust in God guiding her.

In her escape, Harriet relied on the goodness of strangers – a wonderful reminder that there’s a deep connection between people and that sometimes that connection requires that we take risks.

There's also no pretending that the happy ending meant an end to trouble – Harriet works as a housemaid, risks her life often to rescue others, and continues to endure the groans and tears of her people. But there is triumph too, in Harriet rescuing so many and in her hearing God’s approval.

The illustrations are moody and quite often dark, since much of the story takes place in the night. Perfect in fact for the story - which is full of emotion and quite often dark in tone too.  They're the kind of illustration that leads to deeper thought.

I really love this version of Harriet’s story; it treats a serious subject seriously, but with hope and compassion. And although it is lovely for religious families, I don’t think the value of the book would be at all diminished for a secular family. Harriet drew great strength from her faith and that strength allowed her to do extraordinary things. For secular families, this is still a useful talking point allowing conversations to open up about how people find strength and the importance of overcoming.

This is one of my all-time favourites for children and adults alike. Here’s why:

It’s perfect for older children to listen to and to ponder on.

It is strong in its condemnation of slavery but doesn’t condemn people.

It’s just lovely to look at and listen to – the words flow beautifully and the pictures are enticing.

It hints at the impossible choices so many people have had to make in the cause of something great, like freedom.

It shows Harriet’s faith in God and in her cause, overcoming her fears.

It shows an amazingly strong woman doing a good, good work.

It reminds us that we need to help others whenever we can.

It reminds us that we might be in need of help and there will be people to offer it.

It shows both how far we have come and how far we have to go in finally achieving a world of freedom.

It’s a great starting point to conversations about freedom, slavery, strength, compassion, racism, sexism, faith, fear, risk and so much more.

You might also like to read our post on Colson Whitehead's brilliant book The Underground Railroad.