About The Book

“Powerful storytelling and immersive art.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Vibrant writing and magical realism lift this story to one of triumph.” —Publishers Weekly

In this inspiring story in the tradition of American black folktales, an enslaved brother and sister are inspired by a majestic and mysterious bird to escape to freedom in this dramatic and unforgettable picture book.

There was nothing civil about that war. They should have called it what it was: a big, bad war.

Brother and sister Millicent and John are slaves on Simon Plenty’s plantation and have suffered one hurt and heartbreak after another. Their parents had told them old tales of how their ancestors had flown away to freedom just as free and easy as a bird. Millicent and John hold these stories in their hearts long after their parents are gone. “Maybe such a time will come for you,” their parents said. Then one day a mysterious bird appears in their lives. The bird transforms them and gives them the courage to set their plan into motion and escape to freedom.

About The Author

Nancy Kavanagh O'Neill

Jerdine Nolen is the beloved author of many award-winning books, including Big Jabe; Thunder Rose, a Coretta Scott King Illlustrator Honor Book; and Hewitt Anderson’s Great Big Life, a Bank Street Best Book of the Year, all illustrated by Kadir Nelson. She is also the author of Eliza’s Freedom Road, illustrated by Shadra Strickland, which was an ALA/YALSA Best Fiction Nominee for Young Adults; Raising Dragons, illustrated by Elise Primavera, which received the Christopher Award; and Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm, illustrated by Mark Buehner, which was made into a movie by the same name. Her other books include Calico Girl, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year, and Irene’s Wish, illustrated by A.G. Ford, which Kirkus Reviews called “delightful and memorable” in a starred review. Ms. Nolen is an educator and lives in Ellicott City, Maryland.

About The Illustrator

Photograph courtesy of author

James E. Ransome’s highly acclaimed illustrations for Before She Was Harriet received the 2018 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. His other award-winning titles include the Coretta Scott King winner The Creation; Coretta Scott King Honor Book Uncle Jed’s Barbershop; Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt; and Let My People Go, winner of the NAACP Image Award. He frequently collaborates with his wife, author Lesa Cline-Ransome. One of their recent titles is Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams, which received four starred reviews and was an ALA Notable Children’s Book. James is a professor and coordinator of the MFA Illustration Graduate Program at Syracuse University. He lives in New York’s Hudson River Valley region with his family. Visit James at JamesRansome.com.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books (February 1, 2020)
  • Length: 32 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780689871672
  • Grades: K - 4
  • Ages: 5 - 9

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Raves and Reviews

The intimate, compelling voice that Nolen (Calico Girl) creates for this story about two enslaved children begins matter-of-factly—“Now you know even before I tell you there was nothing civil about that war”—and stays strong throughout. Heartbreak strikes John and Millicent early as their parents, Samuel and Maggie, are sold—but not before they have planted in their children the vision of freedom, which they tie to images of birds in flight: “Because there is beauty and music in the flight of birds—listen for the song. It is a song for the soul.” Ransome (The Bell Rang) paints the children toiling in vast tobacco fields during the day. An overseer knocks a majestic black bird out of the sky with his whip, the children retrieve it under a full moon, and though John is taken to another plantation for months, Millicent is able to watch it heal: “Its feathers, black as jet, seemed to glow like burning coals.” When John returns, fate and the bird give the children a chance at freedom, an escape to the “wide-open spaces of the West” that takes on legendary dimensions. Vibrant writing and magical realism lift this story to one of triumph. Ages 5–9. (Jan.)

– Publishers Weekly, September 23, 2019

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More books from this author: Jerdine Nolen

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