I think that there may be a certain amount of thinking amongst adults like myself that we’ve plumbed all the heroes we could get out of the Civil War. Not a particular history buff, my vague and foggy sense of the time period (informed at intervals by Ken Burns’ Civil War series) is that the heroes have long been lauded, the villains well vilified, and that there’s not much else to say to kids about the time. I mean, I watched Glory in high school. I know the time period, right? It’s a good thing that there are authors like Janet Halfmann out there who think differently from people like me. A week ago if you had walked up to me and said, "Robert Smalls. Who was he?", I’d have met you with a slow-blinking stare. Now if you walk up to me and say, "Robert Smalls. Who was he?", you’re still going to get the stare, but only because I’m probably seated at a reference desk somewhere wracking my brain for context. Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story takes a relatively unknown hero and renders his story loud, strong, and clear. With illustrations by first-time picture book artist Duane Smith, it’s the kind of book with enough innate drama to stick in the minds of its intended audience.
He was born a slave on a South Carolina plantation in 1839. At the time Robert Smalls was a favorite with his masters, the McKees, and when he was twelve they sent him to work at a hotel in Charleston along the river. From there he worked the cargo docks and then the shipyards, with the potential to someday become a wheelman. After he married, Robert swore he’d buy his wife and daughter’s freedom. He had almost managed it by the time the Civil War broke out. So when work dried up, Robert became a deckhand on a steamer called Planter and eventually worked his way up to wheelman. He also observed all the secret steam whistles, a fact that would come in useful later. Robert soon found that he was physically similar to the captain. And so, planning with his crew, Robert determined to disguise himself as the captain one night and smuggle the crew and their families to the north where they would be free. It was risky, dangerous, and even if he managed to escape the South, what would stop the North from firing upon a southern vessel? Halfmann retells this exciting escape and story clearly and concisely. An Afterword offers facts about Robert and his life, including the time when he was elected to Congress in 1875, and a list of Author’s Sources provides a plethora of bibliographic information.
Halfmann’s focus could have been anything. When you consider that you’re dealing with a man who escaped slavery, wrote the proposal for the creation of South Carolina’s first free system of public schools, became a Congressman, and petitioned to give women the right to vote, and more, the question isn’t whether to tell his story but how much to tell. Because Halfmann’s book is in a picture book style and stands at 40 pages, the storyline had to either summarize everything quickly, or focus in on a single moment in time. As it happens, the story of Smalls’ escape and bravery is particularly ideal for a picture book. There’s danger and suspense and a clear-cut hero involved. Now all that remains is for someone to write a full-length biography of the man for kids.
Artist Duane Smith’s style did not initially engage me, and I’ll tell you why. I’m the kind of person who loves delicate lines and minute details. I love pen-and-inks and tiny images that only can be seen on the fourth or fifth rereading of a book. Impressionism has never done anything for me. Bold strokes of color and thick paints? Not my style. Which isn’t to say that I couldn’t appreciate what Mr. Smith has done here. Using deep-hued oils in an array of striking colors, Smith renders his people as almost outlines of paint. Shadows and skin, hollows and shady areas are defined by these sweeps and starts of color. At a key moment, say when Robert overhears the officers of the ship say they’ll go ashore, Smith makes a point to close in and detail the face of his hero more precisely. There’s a method to the madness here. Smith makes calculated choices on when and how to portray the characters in this book. Admittedly, this serves more effectively as a meditative tool. When you are faced with action sequences, like the Planter escaping Confederate waters, the result is not as exciting as you might hope. That said, the battle at Fort Sumter excels. And I enjoyed Smith’s varying angles. One moment you’re on the same level as the characters, and the next you’re seagull height, peering down upon the Planter and the Onward as they approach one another tentatively. Smith appears to be the ideal illustrator for this particular tale.
So I like the writing and I appreciated the art (even if it’s not my preferred choice). It’s a pity that the design didn’t quite stand up to the rest of the book. Non-fiction (or "informational" if you prefer) picture books suffer from a strict format that does nobody any good. In the most extreme cases you’ll open the story up and face a page of text and a picture. A page of text and a picture. A page of text and . . . yawwwwn! "Seven Miles to Freedom" resists this format as much as it can, but it still happens. Sometimes the words will mix and meld with the illustrations, and that’s wonderful. But since Smith didn’t create an entire book of two-page spreads, something has to be done when there’s only picture enough for one page. The result is a fine book, but one that you wish could have upped the oomph just a tad.
I can’t vouch for the rest of the country, but in New York young kids are generally given biography assignments of vague proportions. They’ll walk up to your reference desk and say, "I wanna biography," and you have to figure out what they mean exactly. The advantage of the Robert Smalls story is that it’s short enough to not freak the kids out too much, but interesting and with lots of bright pictures. I wouldn’t necessarily hand it to a fourth or fifth grader, of course, but even if I did I figure they’d get a certain level of enjoyment out of the storyline. Kids will also get historical assignments and certainly the best-known picture book set during the Civil War to my mind is Patricia Polacco’s Pink and Say. Seven Miles to Freedom would pair beautifully with that title. A great new take on a little known true-life tale.
On shelves now.
By the way, it’s Non-Fiction Monday again. Be sure to stop by Picture Book of the Day for the round-up.