When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom

written by Carole Boston Weatherford
illustrations by Kadir Nelson

Carole Boston Weatherford's Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom
Illustrations by Kadir Nelson

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 5-8

Harriet Tubman of the Underground Railroad, guided by God

There are other picture books depicting American hero Harriet Tubman, but probably none that so emphasize her relationship with her Lord.

Tubman, of course, is the slave woman who first rescued herself from a Maryland plantation, then returned numerous times over the years to escort an estimated 300 other slaves from the American South.

Known to be fiercely religious, Tubman credited God with her extraordinary works. Author Weatherford attempts to capture Tubman's intense religiosity by going inside Tubman's mind during her initial escape and subsequent returns to aid family and complete strangers.

This requires a substantial amount of invention on Weatherford's part, and so she calls the result fiction:

This fictional story is based on the spiritual journey of Harriet Tubman--as a slave in Maryland: a free woman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a famous conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Readers, however, are likely to find Tubman's worldly journey quite real.

It was.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom

When we first meet Weatherford's Harriet, she's praying. Or, rather, "talk[ing] with God."

I am Your child, Lord; yet Master owns me
drives me like a mule.
Now he means to sell me south in chains.

Tubman's God talks back, in the voice of a whip-poor-will's song.

I set the north star in the heavens and I mean for you to be free.

He is urging her to take the plunge, promising her success.

Tubman speaks with God continuously during her initial journey. She is scared near to death, but He is with her. He tells her to go on. Even tells her how. As bloodhounds track her, God speaks through a babbling brook.

Shed your shoes, wade in the water to trick the dogs.

People of different spiritualities and beliefs will likely interpret these interactions in different ways. But all will find inspiration in Tubman's bravery and drive to serve others. The terror of her own escape renders even more meaningful her repeated returns to rescue her fellow slaves.

A steep price was on Harriet's head, and if captured she faced dire punishment.

Illustrator Kadir Nelson won a Caldecott honor for his efforts on this book. He captures Harriet's fear and her determination. (He won another Caldecott the next year for another Underground Railroad story, Henry's Freedom Box.) He captures the natural world from whence Harriet hears God's words.

(Look carefully with your child when Harriet sleeps. In the shadows around her, you'll see God's creatures watching over her.)

If I have an issue with this book, it's with the title, but admittedly I speak as a white person.

Harriet Tubman did surely lead her people to freedom, but using such language in the present day seems alienating to me, as if this is some other people's story.

No, Harriet's is an American story and she led us all to freedom. Let's not forget that.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom

Read more of Steve's reviews.

More Caldecott reviews.

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