cover image Aunt Harriet's Underground Rai

Aunt Harriet's Underground Rai

Faith Ringgold. Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-517-58767-6

Cassie and Be Be, the young protagonists of Ringgold's Tar Beach , literally wing their way through American history in this otherworldly journey. On a fantastical flight, the kids encounter an ``old ramshackled train in the sky''--a remnant of the Underground Railroad whose conductor is Harriet Tubman. Rambunctious Be Be boards the train, leaving his worried sister to follow behind with only directions from ``Aunt Harriet'' and the kindness of strangers to guide her. Despite this work's laudable aims, its weighty subject matter, heavy symbolism and glitches in logic will likely prove daunting to young readers. The children's ability to fly is never explained, while the text mentions their earthbound parents' concern for them. A sense of time is apparent only in the final spread, which places the action in 1949, the 100th anniversary of Tubman's first flight to freedom. Ringgold's rich oils are somewhat more surreal than those in her acclaimed Tar Beach , portraying faceless hordes of slaves; other paintings present such historical details as Southern swamps and farmhouses. Cassie, Be Be and Harriet resonate with pride and energy, but their spirits can't help this work take flight. Ages 4-9. (Feb.)