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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: OVERGROUND RAILROAD by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Introduced by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Emily Mroczek-Bayci

The Underground Railroad is common knowledge in most elementary school curriculum and there are dozens, possibly even hundreds of books about it. As Author Lesa-Cline Ransome states, this is not so true for the OVERGROUND RAILROAD, the railway system that carried millions of blacks North during the Great Migration.

What makes Cline-Ransome’s writing distinguished is how much imagery, emotion and characterization she can pack into 36 pages. It takes truly special writing to get a Newbery contender out of a picture book and Lesa Cline-Ransome accomplishes that. OVERGROUND RAILROAD has the potential to join the ranks of CROWN, LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET, and THE UNDEFEATED..

The pacing of the OVERGROUND RAILROAD mirrors the long journey north- with mood and thoughts changing at every stop when the conductor shouts, “Next Stop Rocky Mount!” or… Baltimore, Maryland, or Alexandria, Virginia.  The spacing of the words amplifies the books steady rhythm.

Lesa Cline-Ransome clearly paints the setting on the train, where pictures are barely necessary, especially the section when the whites only signs are removed, but that does not end the racism:

 We walk past

row after row

of white folks

who stare or turn away

with eyes that say

keep moving

 when they see us

some put hands in empty seats

not here

and we keep walking

until we find


from new neighbors.

Every word makes an impact and the lyrical language and free-verse text conveys the thought process of people moving during the Great Migration and how the North was idolized using

…Bible words:




hoping that



and New York City


The Promised Land.

Strong writing, presentation and setting make OVERGROUND RAILROAD a true Newbery contender.

Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at


  1. Rachel Jamieson says:

    This is the only book on the Mock Newbery list that is also on my Mock Caldecott list. Both the writing and pictures are strong. It will definitely win an award this month.

  2. Carrie Bruner says:

    Thank you for that introduction, Emily. I am so glad that Lesa Cline-Ransome has written this book because, as you said, I am hard pressed to think of any other children’s books that broach this topic (a topic, I’m ashamed to admit, that I do not know nearly enough about). I am a fan of Cline-Ransome’s previous work, especially BEFORE SHE WAS HARRIET, and think her use of free verse echoes the movement of the train and the thoughts running through Ruth Ellen’s mind as her journey continues.

    I do not have the book in front of me currently, and forgive me if I’m paraphrasing, but the quote that stuck with me long after I read this, was that her family and others were “running from and running to at the same time”. That one line exemplified the desperation that Ruth Ellen’s family felt in leaving the only life they had known, but also the hope they had at making their lives better.

    I know it is rare, but I think OVERGROUND RAILROAD has the potential to be another Newbery Award winning picture book.

  3. Meredith Burton says:

    I loved the cadence of the verses in this book, how they echo the moving train. The setting is so vivid, and I love how the author even shows the father and daughter playing a card game.
    You take the journey along with them, and it is a vivid one of hope and new beginnings. I love when the train passes the cotton fields and the workers are seen. The girl reflects on how her daddy will no longer have to pick the cotton. The emphasis on hope is profound.
    The ability to relate an often overlooked time in history in such spare but profound poetry is a true gift. Excellent introduction. The quote you mentioned about the racism was one that stuck with me as well.

    I know this is irrelevant, but the audiobook for this one is phenomenal! Check it out.

  4. Anna Nielsen says:

    James Ransome is one heck of an illustrator. I love his panels on the end pages, functioning like a comic to tell a story (think McCLoud’s defintion, “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”). I also love his first recto page, the solid postures of the family, facing forward – we immediately know this family is in front us, going somewhere. And in the middle of the book, he supports the text of the “colored section,” reinforces it and makes the meaning deeper and more clear, with his recto illustration of the porter in bright blue holding a sign insisting, “whites only.” Powerful and cleverly rendered. Arguments about whether or not picture books are appropriate for the Newbery Award can and will be made, but for now, here, I am an admirer of Mr. Ransome.

    • Kirsten Hansen says:

      Anna Nielsen, yes! I was particularly struck by the portraits of Ruthie and Frederick Douglass on opposite pages, one reading on a train, one writing at a desk. The writing is very good, but the illustrations are excellent. I’ll be surprised if Overground Railroad gets a Newbery, but I’ll pulling for it for the Caldecott!

  5. 1 pm: Voice of Dissent time! But first, I agree with the importance of telling the story of this part of history. I agree the illustrations are evocative and that the simplicity and rhythm of each page does a good job of uniting the image with the text. However, I struggle with this title for two reasons:

    1. Having read Isabel Wilkerson’s THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS (from which Cline-Ransome took inspiration), I felt this one took too “thin” or shallow a view of the subject. I understand it is a book for young children, but it felt too sanitized for me, too much like a picnic outing rather than the very frightening, pain-filled thing it was.
    2. As a poet, I struggle with the “blank check” that free verse can often get. Is it poetry if we simply take a regular sentence and break it into short lines? Here’s an example from the book converted to a sentence: “Daddy led me to the last seats in the colored car and let me sit next to the window to watch as the train whistled and chugged leaving puffs of smoke behind.” Is that a distinguished sentence? If we encountered it in a novel with character development, plot, and more to determine its merit (not to mention the sentences on either side of it which might shine like stars), we wouldn’t question it. But in a poem, where each word has to do infinitely more work, it falls flat. For me, stories-in-verse need to do what any good poem does: distill the story into lines that stun, and this one doesn’t do enough of that to beat out other works, many of which have sentences that outshine ones like this AND all the other marks of distinction to set them apart.

    Is it a good and a lovely and an important piece of writing? Of course. Does it elevate to the rank of “most distinguished” this year? I’m afraid not.

    • Emily Mroczek (Bayci) says:

      Thanks for the dissent Sarah!

      I agree with your thoughts on it being sanitized… they discuss leaving before the master’s woke up, and getting weird looks on the train… but nothing that conveys the full intensity of the situation

      With the distinguished writing.. I do believe that every word in this book packs a punch, even the sentence you quoted (though a lighter punch!!). I think it’s important to note the spacing and pauses which adds to the writing. This is seemingly a book meant to be read slowly, so every word can have its intended affect.

      I found the first time I read this I went to fast and did not appreciate it enough, but when I slowed down I appreciated it more.

  6. Amanda Bishop says:

    I think this is a beautiful book that sheds light on a difficult topic. However, I would agree with others that this was not an easy journey. I think Cline-Ransome alludes to the pain and struggles in her words while not entirely addressing the issues. She writes how they leave without letting their landlord know and basically have to sneak away without anyone knowing. Perhaps this gives teachers and librarians a chance to further delve into this subject with their students. As I read this book aloud to my students we stopped multiple times to discuss history and to answer questions that they raised about this topic which they had little knowledge of. I don’t think the writing is profoundly groundbreaking of Newbery worthy, but I do think this is a book that should be read to children and discussed.

    • Aud Hogan says:

      I think that’s where this book does shine: as a conversation starter, or as part of a lesson. Without more historical context, I just don’t know how many children will really understand the full depth of what is happening in the story. Folded into that larger understanding, I think the words carry more depth, but for the intended picture-book-reading-child audience, I think it’s just not quite full enough of detail for a Newbery. Without the depth, I feel it lacks some of its resonance. That being said, I think every library should have this book, every school should use it to teach, and I think it will be a cherished part of many children’s collections.

  7. Thank you for the introduction to OVERGROUND RAILROAD Emily Mroczek-Bayci. I’ve read this book both digitally and physical hardcopy. While there were stronger contenders that didn’t make the list and I didn’t really connect with this book as much as I would have liked – I do feel it has merit and still deserves recognition.

    Based on the what the book is – At first reading, the writing may seem simple, but the message and emotion are conveyed subtly in kid relatable language and perspective. “Daddy holding tight to me with one hand three tickets to New York in the other.” That’s a child’s perspective.

    I don’t really feel this is a ‘sanitized’ version of what’s happening at all. There’s more to this book than what it seems on the surface. This story still conveys racism, fear, and the plight of African Americans with select words and illustration filling in the blanks. “We left in secret.” And, “No more picking,” Daddy said mad. “No more working someone else’s land, ” Mama said proud.

    And the next page shows what the family is escaping. The words – “just like my granddaddy but not anymore for my daddy.” – clearly and subtly show Daddy’s determination to find a better life for his family. Or other places where Cline-Ransome parallels heaviness to kid like perceptions – “I won at rummy Daddy at war.”

    “We don’t have to stay in front behind the engine breathing in smoke ’cause we’re past the line that divides black from white south from north wrong from right.” And on the next page, the porter is holding the WHITES ONLY sign that he’s taking down. That has significant meaning.
    “Then stare, turn away, hands in empty seats” – kid relatable perspectives and sensibilities.

    A picture book isn’t supposed to show the violence that was endured or the atrocities done to a group of people. It’s supposed to tell kids exactly what happened in a kid friendly age appropriate way. I think this book achieves that.

    Just because this is a book about a black family’s experience during segregation, doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be portrayed or depicted through a negative lens. There’s no single story in any community. And I think the author and the illustrator took great care to portray this ‘scary’ event positively and beautifully, while instilling a calm, nervousness about fleeing and it’s significant parallel to the life of Frederick Douglass. “And like the boy in the book we all running from and running to at the same time.”

    It’s also important to keep in mind that not all stories about fleeing or survival has to be bad. And not every journey is met with resistance, violence, or having to endure a negative experience.

  8. Tamara DePasquale says:

    Thank you all for your thoughtful responses. I have read this book several times, both quietly to myself and aloud. There are several notable strengths that are worthy of discussion. Here we have a picture book about a moment in history that stands alone in its telling. In spite of the brevity of the picture book format, we know and learn a lot about the characters, the setting, and the conflict — all through Ruthie’s eyes. She is able to demonstrate the love, the pride, the struggles, and the hopes of her family. She aptly describes where she comes from, her journey north, and her eventual destination. From the moment she boards the train to her arrival in New York City, she includes just enough details to portray the obstacles that she and her family face without overwhelming the intended audience. Here is a wonderful introduction to difficult history that is safe and memorable. As many previously have said, it’s a great conversation starter.

    I also would like to praise the writing. The pacing is so good. As reader, you are forced to speed up or slow down throughout the story, and it helps to intensify the conflict or causes you to stick around and ponder the moment. Careful word choice and sentence length make this possible.

    I, too, appreciate the line “we all running from| and running to| at the same time.” Coupled with the image of Ruthie watching the tracks in front of her and the ones behind her, it lends more meaning to her family’s journey while establishing the “Silver Meteor” as the bridge between their past and their future.

    That said, with all that is good about this book, I do not feel that it rises to the level of “distinguished.” Truly, what makes this clearer for me, is looking at it in context with the other books under consideration. Is it my first, second or third choice? No, but that does not diminish the importance of the title or its presentation. Though it means nothing to the present discussion of Newbery merit, I agree with others that it may well receive deserved recognition from other award committees.

  9. Rox Anne Close says:

    Thank you for the introduction Emily. A book like this is really needed in elementary schools, as children know about the Underground Railroad, but ot so much about the exodus of so many blacks during the Great Migration. I loved the cadence of this book. I could hear the whistle blow at each stop as the conductor shouted, and I could feel the rhythm of the train with the spacing of the words.

    I felt this book was strong with emotions; “No more picking,” Daddy said mad. “No more working someone else’s land,” Mama said proud. Mama fusses with her purse, Daddy stares ahead, and Mama turns in her sleep restless and dreams. showed the tension of passing time until they cross the Mason Dixon Line. Then the tension continued with the realization of the racism they will still face up north with the words: “We walk past row after row of white folks who stare or turn away…some put hands in empty seats not here”. Then the tension eased again, “…we keep walking until we find smiles from our neighbor.” The next page shows the train crossing the Delaware River and the words on the page; “The book, [Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass], Teacher gave me has pages filled with the story of a boy leaving behind what he knew and heading to what he don’t, just like me.” brings us back to reality that they actually made it North and shows that the family has hope and will not be alone, but that it will take continued perseverance.

    I agree with Nadia, that this book is not a ‘sanitized’ version, as it shows the racism, fear and the plight of the southern Blacks. As a retired teacher, I think this book is very appropriate for a second grade audience, and as Aud mentioned it would shine as a conversation starter as part of a lesson. I know as a teacher, I would have to fill in the historical context of this book, and Cline-Ransome writes some of that context in her Author’s Note at the end of her book, which is helpful.
    I agree with Emily that this book definitely shows strong writing and is a true contender for a Newbery Award, and if it doesn’t win that award, I hope it wins in another category.

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