Illustrated by Curtis James; Hyperion Books, 2005

Doreen Rappaport weaves a riveting tale of a boy and his family aboard the gunboat Planter. Captained by Robert Smalls and loaded with fellow slaves, the ship flees to the Union fleet to gain freedom from slavery and deliver much-needed ammunition to the Union Navy.


  • CCBC Choices, Best Books of the Year
  • Best Children’s Books of the Year, Bank Street College of Education


Educators will welcome this story, based on a true incident, about slaves who commandeered a Confederate ship and sailed to freedom. A present-day boy introduces the tale, which is told from his great-great-grandfather’s point of view. The dark colors and shadows in the realistic chalk-pastel drawings suggest the secrecy of the families’ nighttime escape, while the facial features and body language express urgency. School Library Journal


From the Author

This book is based on a true incident in American history. I reconstructed the event from newspaper accounts of the period and from details given in From Slavery to Service: Robert Smalls, 1839-1915, written by Okon Eder Uya, published by Oxford University Press 1971. The family in my book is fictional.

On May 13, 1862, twenty-three year-old Robert Smalls and the nine-member slave crew of the Planter kidnapped the ship and delivered it, its cannons, and ammunition to the Union Army. Robert Smalls was the ship’s pilot. John Smalls (no relation) and Alfred Gradine were ship engineers. Abraham Jackson, Gabriel Turno, William Morrison, Samuel Chisolm, Abraham Allston, and David Jones were crew members. Five black women and three children also escaped. Two of the children were Robert and Hannah Smalls.

News of this daring achievement spread through the North and South. The loss of the Planter devastated the Confederacy, for it was needed to carry supplies and troops along the Carolina coast.  Northerners applauded the crew’s courage and ingenuity. Small was declared a hero, appointed as a pilot in the U.S. Navy, and assigned to the Planter.

I was unable to find out who the other child was, so I took the liberty of naming the boy in my book Samuel.





Study Guides
Hyperion Books extended guide on Freedom Ship
Doreen’s Study Guides

Kids Connect

Robert – Official Website and Information Center

Naval Historical Center – Robert Smalls (1839-1915) was born a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina.

Steamship Planter (1860-1876)  –  Planter, a 300-ton side-wheel steamship, was built for commercial use at the Charleston, South Carolina, in 1860.