Freedom Bird by Jerdine Nolen, illustrated by James E. Ransome

81aJPgnZVOL._AC_UL320_ML3_Freedom Bird by Jerdine Nolen, illustrated by James E. Ransome. Simon & Schuster, 9780689871672, 2020

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4.5

Format: Hardcover picture book

Genre: Historical fiction

What did you like about the book?  Two young enslaved children, a brother and sister, work on Simon Plenty’s plantation, harvesting tobacco. Their beloved parents have been sold away and now that same fate awaits John, the elder sibling. One day a mysterious huge bird is pulled from the sky by the overseer’s whip and the two children rescue it. Even when John is hired out to another farm, young Millicent continues to nurse and love the giant creature. When John returns, the two are determined to set the bird free. A miraculous storm follows the bird as it takes to the sky and John and Millicent choose to follow it west to freedom. Nolen tells the story as if speaking directly to her readers, including her own voice and commentary as she relates her tale. This book is one in Nolen’s series focusing on the multigenerational narrative of an African American family (including Big Jabe and Thunder Rose.) Nolan also makes reference to Virgina Hamilton’s masterwork The People Could Fly. I appreciated the children’s bravery, empathy and initiative, and their parents’ insistence on sowing “the seeds of freedom in their children’s minds and hearts.”

James Ransome’s beautiful color-saturated paintings are the stars of this story. Deep indigo endpapers proclaim the importance of this color as a recurring motif signaling the desire for freedom: the sky and streams, Millicent’s clothing, the night-kissed tobacco fields (as the children make their escape) and the deep majestic blue of the freedom bird’s feathers. Ransome’s broad, painterly brushstrokes manage to combine power and delicacy. The children’s faces and expressions are expertly rendered, but so are the landscapes.

Anything you didn’t like about it? It’s a book that will require a lot of adult support to tackle. Nolen provides very little information about enslavement or plantation life. The children escape west — I’m not sure if that was an actual option for runaways. The metaphorical elements of the book are slightly uneasy with the more down-to-earth parts. Also, although I understand that “enslaved people” is less poetic, I did wonder at Nolen labeling her characters as “slaves.”

To whom would you recommend this book?  Those who have read her other books or used them for classes will appreciate Freedom Bird. I would recommend this for children from grades 2-5, with adult support and guidance.

Who should buy this book? Elementary and public libraries

Where would you shelve it? Picture books

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: February 2, 2020

This entry was posted in *Book Review, *Picture Book, African Americans, James E. Ransome, Jerdine Nolen, Slavery and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.