Thursday, January 30, 2020

Multicultural Children's Book Day, 2020 -- Book Review

“The Escape of Robert Smalls: A Daring Voyage Out of Slavery”
By Jehan Jones-Radgowski; Illustrated by Poppy Kang
Publisher: Capstone Editions          Published: 2019
ISBN: 9781543512816                      Pages: 42

Robert Smalls' true story is one for the ages. He was an enslaved man who commandeered a Confederate steamboat and then sailed it to freedom with his family and others among the ship’s 16 passengers. Then, as a freedman, Smalls returned to South Carolina and purchased the home of his former slaveholder funded in part by the $1,500 he was rewarded by the U.S. Navy for capturing the escape ship. Later, Smalls went into politics and became a member of the House of Representatives. He retired a U.S. Congressman years before his death in 1915.  But Smalls' most enduring accomplishment remains – his daring voyage out of slavery. 

And that adventure is exactly what is captured in Jehan Jones-Radgowski’s new children’s book: The Escape of Robert Smalls: A Daring Voyage Out of Slavery.

Based on the real-life story of Robert Smalls, the book offers a dramatic retelling of the historic event. Beyond the history itself, what makes this retelling fresh and engaging, worthy of a read, is the quality and cadence of the narrative. Depicted in a cartoon style of illustration, each of the book’s double panels draws the readers deeper into the adventure, tip-toeing through the night when Smalls made history. 

The new book doesn’t just tell this story; rather, it shows it in hues of grey, blue and brown. Readers are immediately drawn into the shadowy, sea-faring world of which illustrations set the tone for a rich description of the ingenuity behind Smalls' endeavor. 

With each turn of the page, another layer, another facet in Smalls' freedom play is revealed. These illustrations include drawings of how he practiced assuming the captain’s identity by studying and learning the slaveholder’s movements and demeanor. Other details like Smalls' use of a disguise to avoid being discovered, is also depicted. Such details echo the emotion of the harrowing act and tell a story that is driven by suspense-building, page-turning pauses.  

All action crescendos to an exuberant climax as the stealth seaman and his family reach safety. Readers will imagine the cheers and feel the relief the characters feel in reaching safety. In taking this approach, readers, too, will come away with a deep appreciation of the real brilliance and danger that characterized Smalls’ act and an awareness of the liberating sweetness of freedom.

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