Children's Review: Before She Was Harriet

Husband-and-wife team Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrator James E. Ransome partner up again--as they did for Freedom's School and My Story, My Dance--to share scenes from the life of one of America's bravest and toughest heroes, Harriet Tubman.

Cline-Ransome's text is a poem that begins with an elderly Tubman and takes the reader backward, step by step, through her life: as a suffragist, a spy, a nurse, "Moses" of the Underground Railroad, "a wisp of a woman/ with the courage/ of a lion." In this ringing free verse, Tubman's bold spirit is evoked in narrow columns of text skimming the edges of Ransome's richly hued watercolor paintings. Each segment of the poem's accompanying painting showcases a moment of Tubman's life. In them, she moves in sureness in a starlit forest, her sharp, watchful eyes and intelligent face lit as though by an unseen flame. She nurses wounded soldiers, her competent yet gentle hands bandaging an injured man. Seated in the prow of a rowboat, "General Tubman" presides with fierce pride over the flight of escaping slaves "on the Combahee River/ turned River Jordan" like George Washington leading the crossing of the Delaware River. Perhaps the most moving portrait, though, depicts Tubman as a wide-eyed young girl called Araminta, with her father standing protectively at her back as she gazes into the darkness, her profile framed by a low-hanging full moon like a china plate. In this painting especially, Ransome infuses Tubman's face with such gravity and emotion that she seems both immediate and ethereal at the same time, a future hero captured for a moment as a child not unlike any child reading her story.

Appropriately, the Ransomes bookend Tubman's life journey with a literal railroad journey. It begins with Tubman waiting at the station and ends with her riding at sunset past a view of empty fields reminiscent of the plantation fields she hoes in an earlier spread, the weight of her years and wisdom plain in her weathered face.

Before She Was Harriet works as both an introduction to Tubman's life and a jumping-off point for conversations about her many roles. Early to upper elementary schoolers will easily fall in love with the brave, adventurous Harriet who risked so much and take to heart the lesson that the path to heroism lies in service to others. No classroom or home library is complete without this inspirational and gorgeous paean to a great woman. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services manager, main branch, Dayton Metro Library

Shelf Talker: This gorgeously illustrated, gracefully written poem takes readers through the life of Harriet Tubman in reverse chronological order.

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