(C) Ages 8-10, (D) Ages 10-12, (E) Ages 12-15, Book Reviews, Discussion Starters, Middle Grades, Multicultural, Nonfiction, Starred Reviews
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*Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad by Ann Petry

A well-written, engaging middle grades biography of Harriet Tubman, conductor on the Underground Railroad, that tells young readers about her life from birth to death.

*Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad by Ann Petry. Amistad, 2018 (revised edition). 272 pages.

Reading Level: Middle grades, ages 10-12

Recommended For: Middle grades, ages 8-12, and up!

She had always had the makings of a legend in her: the prodigious strength, the fearlessness, the religious ardor, the visions she had in which she experienced moments of prescience.

Harriet Tubman, aka Araminta, Minta, Minty, and, finally, Moses, looms large on the landscape of our country’s turbulent 19th century. Born to slaves on a Maryland plantation, she learned the meaning of hardship and hard work from birth. And she practiced running away at an early age, too, ending up in a pigpen much like the Prodigal Son. Eschewing the easier household work most young African American female slaves ended up doing, Harriet preferred the backbreaking outdoor work–and demonstrated prodigious strength early on. She condescended to make a pretty patchwork quilt for her marriage to her freeborn husband despite her impatience with indoor work, but John Tubman declined to follow his wife to freedom when she finally broke away.

The rest of Harriet’s life, as they say, is history: after her successful escape on the Underground Railroad, Harriet returned multiple times to rescue her family members and others from slavery. Her danger only increased as tensions mounted in the fragile Union until the reward for her capture was $60,000. Harriet eventually worked with the Union Army and ended her eventful life as a storyteller at the end of an era.

Petry’s biography of Tubman takes some liberties; today’s nonfiction–even for children–demands more source notations for quotations and other less verifiable facts than Petry gives. Nonetheless, this is a wonderfully written biography of an important figure in our country’s history. Petry includes countless thought-provoking statements about the nature of freedom, the culture of slavery and African Americans, and even the responsibilities of people to bring about social justice. It’s easy for biographies of figures like Harriet to slip into hagiography, but Petry keeps her tone level, shows the reader Harriet’s strengths and weaknesses, and places Harriet firmly in a historical setting without which Harriet’s own dream for freedom could never have been realized. From the white Quakers to the other escaped- and freeborn African Americans, Harriet benefited from others in much the way she later helped people.

Each chapter ends with a short historical note, filling in the gaps on other key players during the same time period: Frederick Douglass, John Brown/Harper’s Ferry, Supreme Court decisions, and more. Petry doesn’t avoid the hardships of slavery, but neither does she dwell graphically on any one instance. Thus, this is a great introduction to young readers of the horrors of slavery without going into too much detail. Notably, Harriet wasn’t born in the deep South–slaves had an even harder time there.

Don’t miss Jason Reynolds’s terrific introduction!

Cautions: violence (some of the treatment Harriet endured, particularly as a child)

Overall Rating: 4.5

  • Artistic Rating: 4.75
  • Worldview Rating: 4.5

This is a great book to discuss! Consider the following:

  • What do you think about Harriet’s visions? Were they actual visions from the Lord? What does the Bible say about visions and dreams? Are there people who experienced dreams and visions from the Lord in the Bible?
  • Discuss the following quotation: “…Freedom’s a hard-bought thing, not bought with dust, but bought with all of oneself–the bones, the spirit and the flesh–and once obtained it had to be cherished, no matter the cost.”
  • Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. From our vantage point, are there people, places, or events that the Lord might have been putting into place to bring about slavery’s end? How does Harriet fit into the larger picture? (While we can’t know for sure, it is certainly true that the Lord uses people to work his will on earth, and He orchestrates events as well!)
  • Alternatively, how did the Lord prepare Harriet herself for the role she would play? (hint: would she have been as effective a “conductor” had she been indoors her whole life?)

Have you read another Harriet Tubman biography you’d recommend?

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