Seven Miles to Freedom:
The Robert Smalls Story
written by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by Duane Smith
New York, Lee and Low Books: 2008
ages 8 - 12
Stories of how real people reacted to overwhelming odds have always inspired us. Picture book biographies have an amazing power to pull children into history and show them how people have acted with courage and dignity to reach their goals. This is a powerful story of Robert Smalls, a slave from Beaufort, South Carolina, who escaped to the Union lines, won his freedom and eventually became a United States Congressman.
Robert Smalls was born in 1839 in South Carolina. Growing up a slave, Robert dreamed of being able to gain his freedom. After his first child was born in 1858, he was able to make a deal to buy his wife's and daughter's freedom for eight hundred dollars. Although he was still a slave, this would enable his family to stay together.
But soon war exploded throughout the country, and Charleston was on the front lines. Robert became a deckhand on a steamship that hauled army supplies for the Confederate army. His knowledge of the Charleston Harbor and surrounding rivers impressed the ship's officers, and Robert was promoted to wheelman. In this position, he learned the secret whistles for passing the Confederate forts protecting Charleston.
In 1861, the Union navy captured Port Royal, just south of Charleston. Only seven miles of waterway lay between Robert and the chance of freedom in Union territory. One night when the officers were on shore, Robert steered his ship, with his family and crewmates aboard, past the many Confederate forts, directly toward the Union blockade.
This is a compelling, dramatic story that will have kids and adults riveted. It made me wonder why I had never learned of this amazing man and his unshakable courage and amazing leadership. The paintings for this book match the compelling nature of the story, and completely drew me in. They are bright and vibrant, and help bring the story to life.
Find it at the Berkeley Public Library or at the publishers Lee and Low Books.
I am very grateful to the author and Lee & Low Books for sending me a copy to review. They have a wonderful selection of children's books, especially addressing a wide variety of cultures and histories.