This additional guide was prepared by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, a reading specialist and author of Reaching for Sun (Bloomsbury) for Hyperion Books.
- What is the meaning of the title?
- Is the book set in our current time or long ago? What clues do the author and illustrator give to tell us what the time period is?
- What does it mean to be a slave? When did America support slavery?
- Who is telling the story? Where did he learn it?
- What is the Union? Who are the Confederates? What war are they fighting?
- Why would Samuel be free if he could only get to a Union ship?
- Why does Samuel’s mother tell him to do everything quietly? What could happen if he disobeyed?
- How do they get past the other ships and the islands that are guarded? What is the plan if they get caught? Why are they willing to do that?
- Why does Robert Smalls put on the captain’s clothing? Does it work?
- What do they do with Samuel’s white bedsheet? What does it mean?
- What do they give to the Union Army? Why?
- Would you be willing to risk everything for such a daring escape? Why or why not?
- Write a scene between the escaping women and children hidden in the dark cabin below deck. What might they be whispering to each other? What hopes do they have for their new lives?
- Social Studies / Geography
- Color a United States map from the 1860’s. Color the Union states blue and the Confederate states red. Place an X where this story takes place.
- The color of freedom: Create two pieces of art, a drawing or painting that uses colors and shapes to represent slavery, and a second piece that uses colors and shapes to represent freedom. Explain your choices in a brief artist’s statement.
How did you learn about this remarkable story?
I am always reading and looking for great stories about “not-yet-celebrated” Americans. All my friends know this about me. One of them came across an article about Robert Smalls, who piloted the steamer over to the Union side. She sent me the article and I started digging.
What types of historical documents do you research when you’re writing a story like this one? I try to find first-person accounts of an event. I wasn’t successful in finding any for this book. So I dug into newspapers, then I found out that a historian had written a book about Smalls and his life. This incident was in it, of course. The chapter on it had footnotes, which led me to other sources.
What advice do you have for young writers? You have to read. Read, read, read! You have to see how other writers handle material. How they shape a memoir, historical fiction, a biography, fantasy. You read them not to copy them but to see their techniques, their choices, what they leave in and what they leave out, how they shape a point of view. You have to write every day. Even for twenty minutes. You can get a lot down in twenty minutes if you do it every day. And you must have the courage to reread what you have written and to revise it. Revise, revise, revise! That’s the key.