cover image Under the Freedom Tree

Under the Freedom Tree

Susan VanHecke, illus. by London Ladd. Charlesbridge, $16.95 (32p) ISBN 978-1-58089-550-7

In staccato verse, VanHecke (Raggin’ Jazzin’ Rockin’) illuminates an absorbing slice of Civil War history: runaway slaves’ establishment of a settlement in newly seceded Virginia. In 1861, three slaves—Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory—escape by boat from a Confederate camp, “Away/ from Southern soldiers/ who would/ own them,/ work them,/ beat them,/ sell them,/ keep them slaves forever.” The three men land at a Union camp whose commander declares them “contraband of war” and refuses to return them to the Confederates. They and hundreds of other runaways who subsequently arrive in “Slabtown” work for the Union army and build two camps. Missionaries educate the children under the branches of the tree now known as the Emancipation Oak, where, in the story’s triumphant finish, a boy reads the Emancipation Proclamation. Ladd’s (Oprah: The Little Speaker) evocative and subtly textured acrylic, pastel, and colored pencil art reflects the evolving tenor of the story as uncertainty gives way to hope. An extensive author’s note delves deeper into this immersive true story of courage and grit. Ages 6–9. Illustrator’s agent: Lori Nowicki, Painted Words. (Jan.)