I was fortunate enough to meet today’s Perfect Picture Book author at a Highlights Foundation course last summer. I had read many of her picture books and her middle grade debut, Finding Langston, so when I saw this new picture book, I knew that I had to feature it here.
Title: Overground Railroad
Written By: Lesa Cline-Ransome
Illustrated By: James Ransome
Publisher/Date: Holiday House/2020
Suitable for Ages: 4-8
Themes/Topics: African-American history, the Great Migration, moving, train journey
Some walked./ Some drove./ But we took the train north./ Me and Mama and Daddy got to the station/ crack of dawn early before anyone/ could see us leave./ Daddy holding tight/ to me with one hand/ three tickets to New York in the other.
A young African-American girl recounts her family’s 1939 journey from a sharecropping shack in North Carolina to New York City.
Links to Resources:
- Have you ever moved to a new city or town? How did you feel about moving? What did you miss most from your prior home? What did you like best about your new neighborhood?
- Learn about the migration of African-Americans from the rural south to northern cities in the US from World War I through 1960 in what has been termed the Great Migration;
- How is the journey described in Overground Railroad the same as, or different from, the journeys of refugees, migrants, and those seeking to travel north from Central America to the United States today?
Why I Like this Book:
In free verse poetry, Cline-Ransome relates the story of one family’s journey from a sharecropping shack in rural North Carolina to The Promised Land, New York City. Narrated by young Ruth Ellen, readers experience the train ride north from her perspective. We see Ruth Ellen saying tearful goodbyes to extended family, passing time playing cards and reading, noting the change in scenery, and especially seeing the “whites only” sign removed as the train chugged from the segregated south to the relative freedom of the north.
Although Overground Railroad is a work of fiction, Cline-Ransome ties Ruth Ellen’s story to that of others making the same journey by, for instance, noting the crowded “colored” car and how many more joined the journey at each stop. She also ties it back to the journeys that slaves made along the Underground Railroad by placing the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, a gift from her teacher, in her hand and having her remark on the Chesapeake and the Delaware River, important waterways for slaves seeking freedom.
I think Overground Railroad will be an important addition to schools, libraries, and homes, especially with the Author’s Note, in which Cline-Ransome places the migration in context, and notes that this story was “inspired by just one of the many stories of people who were running from and running to at the same time…” I also think the story will appeal to younger children, who can focus merely on Ruth Ellen’s journey, and older children, who can use this picture book as a springboard to learn more about the Great Migration.
For me, who, as regular readers know, usually focuses on international migration, I think Overground Railroad will be a useful tool to compare and contrast the myriad human migrations occurring today to this period in our American history when millions of blacks fled the poverty and violence of the sharecropping system and segregation, seeking a better life for themselves and their families in the North.
Using graphite, paste pencils, watercolors, and collage, Ransome created stunning full-spread illustrations. I especially liked the scene showing so many people scrambling to board the train, and two spreads showing first, young Frederick Douglass alone in a dark forest lit by the North Star, and a few spreads later, young Ruth Ellen arriving in New York City, with a “sky/bright as a hundred North Stars.”
A Note about Craft:
As always, a journey related from the first-person point-of-view resonates with me and brings an immediacy to the story.
As Cline-Ransome admits in the Author’s Note, she hadn’t heard the term “overground railroad” to describe the Great Migration until recently. To help explain this little-known term, she has created a fictional narrator, an Every Child, so to say, through whom readers can experience this life-altering journey. But in addition to this focus, Cline-Ransome has added details which tie this journey to that of millions more and also to the Underground Railroad that preceded it.
This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!