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An Interview with Susan VanHecke, author of Under The Freedom Tree


Under The Freedom Tree2014 Junior Library Guild Selection!

Author Susan VanHecke, Copyright © 2014 Charlesbridge Publishing

Today Good Reads With Ronna and Susan VanHecke discuss how the seeds of a story were planted for her new picture book, Under The Freedom Tree (Charlesbridge, $16.95, Ages 6-9) with illustrations by London Ladd, which we’re highlighting for Black History Month.

We’re joining other reviewers this week as part of a special Charlesbridge Publishing blog tour and hope you’ll take the time to visit all the bloggers’ sites. We’re also delighted to be giving away one copy of Under The Freedom Tree, so enter by clicking here for a chance to win. This giveaway ends at midnight PST on February 24, 2014. Please be sure to write Freedom Tree in the subject line and include your address. Like us on Facebook for an extra entry. A winner will be chosen by and notified via email on February 25th.

Under The Freedom Tree shares the story of three captured slaves, Frank, James and Shepard, during the Civil War, who take an enormous risk to escape across dangerous waters in Virginia to reach the Union Army on the other side only to discover they are still not totally free. However, with the help of clever General Butler, a lawyer before the Civil War, the three fugitives are able to remain with the Union side on a technicality. The winds of change were beginning to blow in the right direction.

Under The Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke with illustrations by London Ladd, Charlesbridge Publishing, 2014.

VanHecke delivers a powerful tale told poetically in free verse and based on actual accounts of the creation of America’s first “contraband camps.”  After word of Frank, James and Shepard’s successful escape, others followed suit. First hundreds then thousands.



Barefoot, mud-crusted.

Better forward than back.

Former slaves built a community in what was known as Slabtown, or the Grand Contraband Camp. By day they worked for the Union, but they were freer than they’d ever been, some living in a home of their own for the very first time.  Silent witness to this all was the majestic old oak tree, the Freedom Tree. Illustrator Ladd conveys so much spirit and emotion in every spread, whether by depicting children being taught under the shade of the oak or the joyful gathering of the community to hear the reading of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. “Lives forever changed under the Freedom Tree.”

Be sure to sit down with your kids and read this fantastic picture book that helps shed light on a little-known yet inspiring event of the Civil War. Also included are a bibliography and author’s note at the end providing more historical information that helps place many of the events in Under The Freedom Tree in context.


Good Reads With Ronna:  Susan, I had no idea the story would be anything other than straightforward prose, but it was so much more. It was poetic and flowed like the water that carried the three slaves to their eventual freedom. How did you decide upon this form of storytelling?

Susan VanHecke: Thanks so much, Ronna, and your imagery is beautiful! You know, I struggled for quite a while (a couple of years, actually) trying to write the contraband slaves’ story in prose. But it was just too dry, too flat, too distant. I didn’t think it would hold young readers’ attention or get them feeling exactly what was at stake.

Then one day I picked up a collection of the late, great author Virginia Hamilton’s essays and speeches. In it, she described a concept she called “rememory,” an “exquisitely textured recollection, real or imagined.” I liked that idea, especially the texture and imagination parts. I decided to make a personal visit to the Freedom Tree. There in the summer quiet, under those sprawling, sheltering branches, I could feel all those heart-pounding emotions, I could imagine all those daring events, that took place under or near Emancipation Oak.

It was a powerful moment for me, and it definitely shook loose the words. My “rememory” came in the form of free verse. I owe a debt of gratitude to Ms. Hamilton.

GRWR: Did you happen upon the history of Frank, James and Shepard accidentally or was their story one you had heard about and always wanted to share with youngsters?

VanHecke: It was totally by accident. Do you ever get those local lifestyle magazines in the mail that are really just slick vehicles for home improvement ads? I was flipping through one of those when it opened to a photo in the back. It was a stunning, sepia-toned image of a spectacular tree. The caption underneath said that this was where area contraband slaves learned to read and write and heard the Emancipation Proclamation, what some consider the first Southern reading of that important document.

I was astonished that I’d never heard of this history, especially since Emancipation Oak is just a few miles from my home. As I researched the full story, I knew I wanted my kids and their classmates to know this exciting, little-known aspect of the Civil War.

GRWR: Under the Freedom Tree is a reminder that even in many places in the North, freedom for slaves was not readily embraced. How did some African American former slaves get to be free while others remained “contraband” until the 13th Amendment?

VanHecke: I’m certainly no expert, but it’s my understanding that former slaves could become free through manumission (emancipated by their owner, usually by “purchasing” themselves) or escaping to the free states of the North. Of course, slave hunters were always on the prowl—in the North and South—and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 created harsh punishments for those who assisted runaways in any way.

That’s what made Union General Benjamin Butler’s “contraband” decision so important. Virginia was a slave state, so by law (the Fugitive Slave Act), Butler had to return to their Confederate owners those three brave souls who rowed under cover of night to Fortress Monroe. But Butler, a lawyer himself, found a loophole: Virginia had just seceded from the United States, so U.S. law no longer applied to it. Virginia was now an enemy of the United States. Therefore, clever Butler was able to declare those escaped slaves “enemy contraband,” since they were being used in the Confederates’ effort to wage war on the Union.

As word spread, more and more slaves escaped and made their way to the Union line, where they too became “contraband.” They weren’t free, and in fact labored for the Union for many months before they were eventually paid for their work. But contraband surely seemed—and ultimately was—one step closer to free.

Interior spread from Under The Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke with illustrations by London Ladd, Copyright © 2014 Charlesbridge Publishing.

GRWR: Were there a lot of Contraband Camps for escaped southern slaves and where were most of them located?

VanHecke: Yes, there were many contraband camps. Butler’s landmark decision became law with passage of the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, opening the floodgates for runaways all over to seek contraband status behind Union lines. More than a hundred contraband camps sprang up throughout the South, as far north as Washington, DC.

GRWR: I saw your bibliography in the back matter and wondered how long it took to get all your research done? Were there any discoveries you made while researching the book that surprised you or shed new light on the subject?

I researched for a couple of years. I couldn’t find a whole lot of well-sourced information when I started. Serendipitously, though, it was around that time that great attention was being focused on Fort Monroe, where the contraband slave story began. The historic fortress had been decommissioned as an Army installation and there was much hue and cry about if and how it could be preserved. Among its staunchest supporters was Civil War scholar Dr. Adam Goodheart, author of the bestseller for adults 1861: The Civil War Awakening. He had done extensive research into the contraband slave story, and his book and sources were a great springboard for my project. I’m so honored that he agreed to vet Under the Freedom Tree for accuracy (and I’m so pleased Fort Monroe became a National Monument, now part of the National Park Service).

I think the most intriguing discovery I made while researching was the surprising full circle of slavery’s start and end. I learned it was in the waters off Fort Monroe—those same waters Frank, James, and Shepard rowed to their eventual freedom in 1861—that the first Africans were brought to the English colonies for the purpose of slavery in 1619. I like to imagine that the Freedom Tree was just a newly sprouted acorn then, growing to bear witness to the slaves’ determined, ultimately triumphant fight for liberty.

GRWR: What part of Frank, James and Shepard’s struggle touched you the most when writing Under The Freedom Tree?

VanHecke: When the book’s illustrator, London Ladd, traveled to my area to research, we visited the exact location where Frank, James, and Shepard climbed into that stolen rowboat. It was a windy day, and the waters were dangerously choppy. Though the trees on the horizon were about two and a half miles away, they seemed like they stood on the other side of the world. London and I could hardly imagine the courage it must’ve taken to embark on that nighttime journey, not knowing if you’d make it across the water, and more importantly, not knowing what would happen to you when you got to the other side. That took pure grit—and a whole lot of hope and faith.

GRWR: Have you been to Hampton to see the Emancipation Oak and if so, what did it feel like seeing such an important symbol in Black History?

VanHecke: Emancipation Oak still stands at the entrance of Hampton University, an impressive tree that’s open to the public. It’s easy to see why the National Geographic Society named it one of its Ten Great Trees of the World. It’s pure magic to stand under the oak and imagine all it’s seen over four centuries.

If you’re not able to visit the tree in person, the video here,, will give you some idea of what it’s like.

GRWR: You and London actually met which is SO unusual in publishing. Most common is the manuscript gets written first and then the illustrator is chosen with no collaboration. How were you two fortunate enough to be able to spend time together?
VanHecke: It is definitely unusual! I was thrilled when I learned London would be illustrating the book, but I was doubly thrilled when he decided to travel from Syracuse, New York—where he lives—to southeastern Virginia—where I live and where the events in the book took place—to research his illustrations. He’s passionate about his work, and he wanted to make sure he got all the details just right.
London visited Fort Monroe and Emancipation Oak, and together we visited Sewell’s Point, where the three slaves pushed off in the rowboat as they made their escape. I also took London to some area wetlands so he could get a better idea of how the shore might’ve looked in 1861, since Sewell’s Point is now part of Norfolk Naval Base, the largest naval station in the world.
It was amazing to watch London work—he took a zillion pictures—and so lovely to get to know him. He shared with me his early sketches; it was so exciting to see the beginnings of artwork to go with the words. For me, seeing sketches is when a picture book starts feeling “real.”

GRWR: What would you like readers to take away from reading Under The Freedom Tree?

VanHecke: I hope readers will come away with a fresh, new view of the journey to emancipation. The “classic” version of passive slaves liberated by the kindness of the white man is outdated, unfair, and untrue. As the contraband story shows, African Americans were proactive and tireless in pursuing their own freedom in whatever ways they could—be it taking it upon themselves to make the dangerous trek to the Union line, laboring for and ultimately joining the Union forces in the war effort, or teaching themselves to read and write. They quite literally put their lives on the line.

I also hope young readers will see in Under The Freedom Tree the importance of standing up for what’s right, even if it’s against the law. Frank, James, and Shepard did this by escaping their oppressors. Butler did this with his contraband slave decision. Mary Peake did this by teaching contrabands under the Freedom Tree. And they changed the course of history, ensuring liberty for all in this country.

You can learn more about the people, places, and events in Under The Freedom Tree at the book’s website,

NOTE:  Look out for VanHecke’s next book from Charlesbridge, a picture book biography of Mexican bandleader and stereo sound pioneer Esquivel.

Visit these other bloggers on the tour to find out more!

NC Teacher Stuff, posted on 2/3/14
Smart Books for Smart Kids, week of 2/10/14
ReaderKidz, interview with Susan will post 2/12; with London on 2/14
Two Writing Teachers, will post on 2/20
Laura Purdie Salas—3 posts:



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