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

Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also reviews for The Horn Book, Kirkus, 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.

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Susan Dailey

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.

Posted : Jan 28, 2018 08:22

Emmie Stuart

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.

Posted : Jan 26, 2018 03:52

Allison Grover Khoury

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.

Posted : Jan 26, 2018 02:24

Sam Juliano

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.

Posted : Jan 25, 2018 06:25

Julie Danielson

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

Posted : Jan 25, 2018 05:59

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