Tuesday, January 22, 2008

When That Old Chariot Comes: Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford

With the artful collaboration of illustrator Kadir Nelson, Carole Boston Weatherford's Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (Caldecott Honor Book) makes the moving story of Harriet Tubman, the "Moses of her people," accessible to the picture book reader.

Born into a large family in Maryland in 1820, Harriet (born Araminta Ross) learned of the horrors of slave life by the time she was seven, when, hired out to a white neighbor by her master to rock a new baby's cradle night and day, Harriet was beaten whenever the baby cried and once hid in a pigpen for days to avoid the whip. Scarred and impaired for life by a massive blow to the head from her master, Harriet grew up longing for release from her servitude:

"I am your child, Lord; yet 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."

Escaping through the nearby swamp, dodging patrollers and traveling only by night, Harriet made her way toward the free state of Pennsylvania, hidden and helped along the way by the courageous Quakers and other conductors along the Underground Railroad. Tiny Harriet, barely five feet tall and half-starved, knew her chances were small, but she drew upon every bit of strength to go on:

"Harriet, your father
taught you to read the stars,
predict the weather,
gather wild berries,
and make cures from roots.

Use his lessons to be be free.
You will meet again."

Arriving a free woman in Philadelphia, Harriet worked as a cook and maid and ministered to other refugee slaves at church. Learning many secrets of the Underground Railroad from them, Harriet returned to her home plantation, first to bring out her sister and her child, then her three brothers and friends, and at last her 70-year-old parents. By this time, however, the Fugitive Slave Law had passed, and Harriet's family was no longer safe from seizure and return to their master even in Philadelphia, so she moved her family to Canada to keep them free. Still Harriet, by this time known as "Moses," with a bounty of $40,000 on her head, continued to guide escaped slaves to freedom, eventually 300 in all.

"But I am a lowly woman, Lord."

"Harriet, I have blessed you
with a strong body, a clever mind.
You heal the sick and see the future.
Use your gifts to break the chains."

And use her gifts Harriet Tubman did. A friend of leaders such as Susan B. Anthony and Louisa May Alcott, Harriet provided a home and help for a succession of ex-slaves, worked as a nurse, spy, and soldier for the Union Army, and in post-war years, seeing the future, spoke widely and often for the women's suffrage movement at rallies for equal rights to education, the vote, and full citizenship.

Winner of both the Caldecott Honor Award and the Coretta Scott King Award for picture books, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (Caldecott Honor Book) tells the inspiring story of a life, a great American life, well lived.

Harriet Tubman's life is a worthy starting point for books for Black History Month. For preschoolers, a good beginning is An Apple for Harriet Tubman In their new picture book Glennette Turner and Susan Keeter recount Harriet's own childhood story, passed down through her great niece, in which five-year-old Harriet is forbidden to eat any of the apples she is ordered to gather in her mistress's orchard. When she is caught giving in to temptation, she is roughly beaten. But when after the Civil War Harriet is able to buy her home in Auburn, New York, she proudly plants and enjoys her own apple orchard.

For primary grade readers a solid beginning chapter biography is David A. Adler's A Picture Book of Harriet Tubman (Picture Book Biography). Notable biographies for older readers include Jacob Lawrence's Harriet and the Promised Land, Ann Petry's Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad, and Dorothy Sterling's Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman.



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