I was exploring the Black History Month section of my local library when I came across Harriet Tubman: Toward Freedom, a graphic novel about Harriet’s journey into the South to rescue her brothers from slavery. I haven’t taught junior high in a couple of years now, and I’m getting woefully behind on my purchasing of good graphic novels without those students to constantly ask for what they want. My high school students love graphic novels just as much, but now that they’re older, they don’t goad me for books. They know I’m spending my own money and so they remain more or less quiet with requests. But this is one I’ll definitely need to purchase.
It is certainly an oversimplification of Tubman’s story. This graphic novel is narrative and at only 112 pages total, limited in scope. It tells the story of one of Tubman’s several journeys back into the South to rescue her relatives and others from slavery. The author’s note at the beginning of the text does briefly mention that as a Harriet had been used for slave labor as a children’s nurse and had to stay up all night actively watching her master’s babies so that they could be soothed immediately if they woke up. She was whipped if they cried. The meat of the book does not focus on Harriet’s enslavement, but rather on her agency and bravery as a free woman, as it should.
Even though this graphic novel is quite short, I found it exceptionally moving. Harriet’s brother has only this one chance to escape slavery, but his wife is pregnant and in labor when Harriet arrives to spirit him away. He must make the choice to leave without his family or not leave at all. The pain of that moment and how it affects all involved is vivid and reaches through the pages of the story.
This should be accessible in all history classrooms and would make a great read aloud for middle school or junior high history teachers. It would take a class period (less than an hour) to read it to students and it certainly wouldn’t be a class period wasted. Even if you’re no longer in school, if your school years were so long ago that you can barely remember them, this would be a great way to invest an hour of your time.
- The narrative structure gives us a snapshot into Harriet’s life and purpose through one journey to go and rescue two of her brothers.
- The emotion is palpable, especially with the character of Mary is who is in labor while her husband has his only chance to escape. It’s a heartbreaking scene.
- This is a good introduction for middle grade or even high school students who may not be familiar with Tubman’s work and legacy.
- The artwork wasn’t entirely to my liking. Some of the characters were so simplistically drawn in small panels that I couldn’t tell them apart.
- middle school and high school history classroom libraries
- parents wanting to introduce their children to Black history
- those who enjoy using a book as a jumping off point for larger research
- those who do not have much experience with nonfiction and want to have a softer entry into the genre
Books to Read if You Loved Harriet Tubman: Toward Freedom:
- Harriet Tubmann: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton (full length biography)
- Run by John Lewis (nonfiction, graphic novel)
- Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Damian Duffy and Octavia E. Butler (fiction, graphic novel)
Let’s Discuss! (Pick a question and drop a comment with your reply!)
- What, if anything, did you learn in school about Harriet Tubman?
- Is it okay to simplify a person’s story or leave out more painful parts when teaching children about a person’s legacy?
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