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Before She Was Harriet

I wrote this elsewhere last year, but I’ll say it again here: I think this is one of the best books by husband-and-wife author-illustrator team Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome, who have collaborated on some fifteen picture books thus far in their careers.

This spare biography of Harriet Tubman, “a wisp of a woman with the courage of a lion,” is tightly constructed, opening with the abolitionist as an elderly woman. As the title promises, the author then leads readers backward through Harriet’s life, stage by stage. After we see her as “an old woman tired and worn,” we see her as a suffragist; as General Tubman, who ferried slaves to freedom; as a Union spy; as a nurse tending wounded soldiers; as Aunt Harriet, who helped her parents escape their slave master; as an Underground Railroad conductor, nicknamed “Moses”; as a working slave, who went by “Minty”; and, finally, as a young girl, whose birth name was Araminta. Towards the end, we circle back to the name “Harriet,” which we read was a name she chose for herself.

Illustrator Ransome dives right into the narrative before we even get to the first word on the first spread. The book’s half-title page is art only, and it depicts a pastoral setting with a train chugging along. Turn the page to see the title-page spread and an elderly black woman, sitting on a bench at the train station. We assume this is Harriet, and this is the reader’s first indication, despite the cover that shows her as a girl, that we will not meet Harriet as a young girl when the story begins, as we would in a more traditionally constructed picture-book biography. None of the white people in her presence sits near her. She looks tired — but content. The next spread, where Cline-Ransome’s text begins, features Harriet with her weathered face and determined eyes. She’s looking slightly above and to the side of the reader.

This spread is one of several in the book that features windows, ones that reflect blue skies and let light pour in. The sunny yellow endpapers match the warm yellows on this first spread of the story, fitting for this account of a woman who led so many people in the cover of darkness to freedom and the promise of new lives. In the spread depicting her as a nurse who tends to a fallen soldier, she is painted in front of a window, one that fills the room with brightness. In the spread where she leads her parents to freedom in Canada, the text is printed in the window frame of their new home. When we see her again on the train at the book’s close, she is once again seated in front of a window, the setting sun behind her.

Many of these spreads bring us memorable, close-up perspectives of Harriet, as if we’re right there with her. One shows her leaning on a walking stick; “she could walk for miles,” the author writes. More of that warm light shines on her face here, as if she’s leaning over a campfire we can’t see. In another striking spread, we see her, “armed with courage,” at the helm of a small boat that carries slaves away from a burning building. The fire burns brightly behind her, with the full moon in the sky lighting her face. In the next spread, where we read she was a Union spy “carrying secrets across battlefields,” she hides behind a tree as Confederate soldiers march right behind her. It’s a moment of nail-biting drama, even though we know from history class how this story ends.

In the “Minty” spread, we see a big afternoon sun behind her, and on the next, we see a moon behind the girl Harriet (Araminta), as she looks up into the sky in profile. This latter illustration is the same one we see on the book’s cover, and this simple, uncluttered composition of young Harriet framed by a glowing moon is striking in its beauty. We see a resolute girl, and the text tells us that she is reading the stars at night, “readying for the day.” We know she is readying herself for much more.

And I love how the next spread shows her in the same position but from a different angle. We see her looking up at the reader — but above and slightly to our right. This brings us full-circle to that first spread, where we see the same unflinching look in the elderly Harriet.

This is a book that captures the humanity of nothing less than an American icon. That’s not an easy feat, but James E. Ransome pulls it off in an emotionally compelling way. Is it on the Caldecott committee’s radar? We’ll know in a matter of weeks.

Julie Danielson About Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.



  1. The Ransomes are master class collaborators, and I also see this as their finest book to date. It appears their chances this year are of the long shot variety because of the intense competition and high number of award-worthy books. For me it is in its own way as distinguished as the Caldecott Honor winning “Moses”, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. In the plantation field tapestry that hearkens back to last year’s Caldecott Honor winning “Freedom in Congo Square” by Carole Boston Weatherford and G. Gregory Christie, Harriet, then known as “Minty of Maryland” toils under the hot sun, abused and punished (“lashes broke her back but not her spirit”). Your own discussion here is brilliant and really needs no further addition. The powerful and resplendent moon canvas that was also chosen for the striking dust jacket and inner cover is surely one of 2017’s most requisite. The passion exhibited throughout by the Ransomes makes the book an immersive and emotional experience, one easily enough appreciated by third to fifth graders. For adults of course it is ravishing art. Another tremendous Calling Caldecott qualification essay, one that really digs far under the surface in every sense.

  2. Thanks, Sam! This is also one of my very favorite 2017 covers. Just exquisite.

  3. Sam Juliano says:

    Julie, I totally agree on the cover as one of the absolute most exquisite of the year. I’d love to have it within a frame hanging on a wall at home. Ravishing.

  4. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    This is really good, Jules. I am grateful for this book for so many reasons, and love it. My students are riveted by it. The art is everything you’ve said and so much more. I always feel we are in the presence of greatness near any book by Mr. Ransome. I’d love to see him get some Caldecott love and appreciation.

  5. Emmie Stuart says:

    Jules, this book wasn’t on my radar until a few weeks ago. I read the entire thing sitting on the floor of Parnassus and was struck by the powerful artwork and words. One of the first things that struck me was the powerful use of golden light, but I completely missed the use of windows. On initial reading, Before She Was Harriet reminded me of Patricia McKissack’s & Jerry Pinkney’s Mirandy and Brother Wind. I reread it yesterday afternoon and would love to know if the Ransome’s were inspired by the words or artwork.

  6. Susan Dailey says:

    Thanks for your insights–so many things I wouldn’t have caught. Besides the gorgeous front cover, I really like the back image inside a circle. It balances the front cover so well.

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