5/19/2011 ** I'm currently doing a unit on the Underground Railroad with my fourth graders and chose to read this aloud today. As I read, I heard the sound of fingers rubbing the illustrations, which are so realistic, you believe you can feel the bark and the murk of the fog. My kids were equally spellbound by the story, totally caught up in characters' lives and wondering if Christmas John was a real person. Named Christmas John because he was born on Christmas Day, the main character began rowing escaping slaves across the Ohio River from Kentucky to Ohio when he was just 12 years old. My students and I wondered how he could keep returning to slavery, risking capture and beatings, when every month in the dark of the moon he actually reached the northern edge of the river.
In her Author's Note, Raven explains that she researched this book by reading the narratives of former slaves collected by unemployed writers in the WPA program in the 1930s. This book is a composite of two different individuals - Granny Judith who was enticed onto a slave ship with progressively larger swaths of red cloth AND John who rowed hundreds of runaway slaves across the rivers over the course of four years.
Among the plethora of picture books about the Underground Railroad, this one deserves more attention than it gets.