Year Published: 2008
Written by: Margot Theis Raven
Illustrated by: E.B. Lewis
What scares the head is best done with the heart.
When Granny Judith asks twelve-year-old Christmas John to row Molly across the river from Kentucky to the Free State of Ohio, he’s terrified. But Granny Judith reassures him. So Christmas John begins the first of many dangerous journeys. And each passing day brings hope that Granny and John can find their own freedom, just across the river.
Night Boat to Freedom is a 2007 Bank Street – Best Children’s Book of the Year.
From School Library Journal
Grade 2-6–Christmas John, 12, lives in a pine-board cabin with Granny Judith, who was enslaved when strangers lured her to their ship with a piece of red flannel. Now on a plantation in Kentucky, Granny Judith and Christmas John help others escape across the river to the free state of Ohio by taking advantage of John’s youth–he’s young enough to avoid notice, and old enough to row a boat across and back. Granny Judith stitches a quilt, incorporating the colors the escapees wear. What color is freedom tonight? As the quilt approaches completion and the risks grow, the time comes for their own escape. Based on several different narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project Slave Narrative Collection, Raven’s moving story is full of particulars that lend it authenticity. Lewis’s realistic watercolors use texture and shadow to an impressionistic effect, communicating the utter darkness in which Christmas John works, and the emotion contained in a single color. An author’s note shows how Raven pieced together her story like Granny Judith’s quilt, lending a context that makes this a rich story for adults and children to share.–Nina Lindsay, Oakland Public Library, CA
The team who created Circle Unbroken (2004) once again brings African American history close. Drawing on accounts in the Slave Narrative Collection, compiled during the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, Raven presents her story from the viewpoint of Christmas John, 12, born on Christmas morning and raised on a Kentucky plantation by Granny Judith, who was captured as a child in Africa. One night Granny Judith asks him to row a young slave across the river to freedom in Ohio. Christmas John is scared, but he helps the slave and many others escape. Finally, it becomes too dangerous for him to stay on the plantation. Granny Judith wants him to leave, but how can he leave her behind? The older mentor is as tough as the young boy, and Lewis’ beautiful, unframed double-page spreads depict the bond between them, including their heartbreaking farewell embrace. The close-ups filled with the richly colored details of Granny Judith’s dyed quilts are in stark contrast to the pictures of the night sky and black water, and the shadows of the runaways in the woods. Words and pictures work perfectly together, making sound from silence and light from darkness.-Hazel Rochman