“Me and Mama and Daddy got to the station / crack of dawn early / before anyone / could see us leave. …We left in secret / before Daddy’s boss knew, / before our lease was up.”
So begins the journey of Ruth Ellen and her parents by train from North Carolina to New York City, just three of the millions of African Americans who made their way north to escape segregation, discrimination and poverty in the first half of the 20th century. Like many, Ruth Ellen’s family are sharecroppers, caught in the cycle of poverty and legal obligations of the system that replaced slave labor during and after the Reconstruction.
Overground Railroad, written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by James E. Ransome, brings this era to life through the eyes of a child, and in her innocence, we learn the sacrifices and hopes of those making “The Great Migration.” They leave their homes, means of subsistence and loved ones behind in the hope of better opportunities.
During her train ride, Ruth Ellen reads a book given to her by her teacher — a copy of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. As she reads, she sees the parallels between her family’s journey and Douglass’s flight from slavery: “…The story of a boy / leaving behind what he knew / and heading to what he don’t / just like me … Like the boy in the book / we all running from / and running to / at the same time.” It serves as a story within the story, woven between the many other impressions passing through Ruth Ellen’s thoughts. Every spread is a glimpse of her experience as the train approaches yet another station on its way to its destination.
Cline-Ransome’s writing is engaging enough for children, yet subtle and poetic, making it a rewarding read for adults as well. In fact, several of the spreads could stand on their own as exquisite verse, such as this one:
“Out the window / in between pages / I watch as crooked shacks / sprout on the edges of fields. / Folks wave from their doorways / and I wave back. / Mama turns in her sleep / restless and dreaming. / All around me / everybody leaving for the North / talks in Bible words / Exodus / Egypt / Canaan / hoping that / Chicago / Detroit / and New York City / are / The Promised Land.”
The book is gorgeously illustrated by Cline-Ransome’s husband, James. Etched in pencil, washed with watercolors, and embellished with cut-out sketches and scraps of collaged fabric and paper, the visual effect is as layered as the story.
Overground Railroad is just the latest in a long series of children’s books related to historic events and people that the Ransome couple has collaborated on together. Their work includes biographical stories of Harriet Tubman, Louis Armstrong, Frederick Douglass and Langston Hughes. Several have gone on to win honors and awards, including the prestigious Coretta Scott King Award. Overground Railroad is a Junior Library Guild Selection, and undoubtedly will garner more honors as the year unfolds.
Lesa Cline-Ransome has written many books for children, including Before She Was Harriet, which received five starred reviews, a Coretta Scott King Honor, and a Christopher Award, and her debut middle grade novel Finding Langston, which received a Coretta Scott King Honor and five starred reviews. She lives in upstate New York with her husband and collaborator, illustrator James E. Ransome.
James E. Ransome‘s numerous accolades include a Coretta Scott King Medal, three Coretta Scott King Honors, and an NAACP Image Award. He lives in upstate New York with his wife and collaborator, writer Lesa Cline-Ransome.
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