SEEKING FREEDOM: The Untold Story of Fortress Monroe
and the Ending of Slavery in America
Written by Selene Castrovilla
Illustrated by E.B. Lewis
(Calkins Creek; $24.99; Ages 7 – 10)
★Starred Review – Booklist
Three freedom seekers took a chance and entered Fortress Monroe without realizing another freedom seeker was watching them from behind a tree, leading to the eventual freedom of thousands of African Americans in Seeking Freedom: The Untold Story of Fortress Monroe and the Ending of Slavery in America, written by award-winning author Selene Castrovilla with illustrations by Caldecott Honoree E.B. Lewis.
With page-turning, easy-to-understand prose, and a history lesson that no reader will forget, Castrovilla’s nonfiction picture book presents a fascinating narrative of what led to President Abraham Lincoln’s decision to create the Emancipation Proclamation and the eventual end to slavery
The book opens with an explanation of what took place when war broke out on April 12, 1861, after Lincoln took office and seven Southern states seceded from the union. It was when Virginia abandoned the United States that the enslaved people knew they would do anything to be free. Castrovilla also explains to readers that the terms slave and fugitive are considered dehumanizing and has replaced these words with enslaved and freedom seekers.
Lewis separates the illustrations with dates helping to visualize the time frame of when events were happening. Freedom seeker George Scott is first introduced watching three African American men enter Fortress Monroe who miraculously are not sent away. After spending two years hiding in the forest, which is much better than being tied to a whipping post, Scott watches more men and women enter the fortress. Hours later, there was still no sign of them! Was it true? Were these people now among friends?
The soft tones of a large brick bridge, and the backs of men and women entering with bare feet, leave us wondering if they will be safe. Lewis’s evocative watercolors show Scott hesitantly walking behind the others on the bridge, becoming the last in the long line to be interviewed. He made the right decision! Fortress Commander Major General Benjamin Butler sits behind his desk questioning every man who has arrived hoping to get information about where Confederates are stationed. “I shall hold these Negroes as contraband of war.” Contraband — property used for warlike purposes against the government of the United States — could be legally confiscated.
Scott tells Butler that he has seen many confederates in the woods. And now Butler has a mission for Scott to track down the confederates. In fact, George Scott was the first enslaved man to be handed a revolver and ride off near the front of an infantry of five thousand men. Chaos came fast. The loss … tremendous.
Many of Butler’s men died but the confederates fled. Butler put his legal skills to work in a letter that was sent to President Lincoln asking for freedom for all African Americans. It was then, Castrovilla explains, that Scott journeyed to the capital to ask for freedom. Congress passed an act approving the confiscation of fugitive slaves by the federal government — and freeing all people enslaved by the Confederacy.
The interesting backmatter includes black-and-white photos of groups of Virginia contrabands wearing old civil war uniforms and explains the history of the Aftermath, The Contrabands, Benjamin Butler’s legacy, and the unsung hero named George Scott. It is unknown if he achieved his goal of asking President Lincoln for his freedom.
This book needs to be placed on every elementary and middle school bookshelf to be read not only during Black History Month but during history lessons. It is a book about the inner strength of George Scott, and the three original men, and what drive they had to change the lives of so many. This is an important perspective about the Civil War and the history of Black people in this country that I wholeheartedly recommend. In 2011 President Barrack Obama signed the proclamation that established the Fort Monroe National Monument, the pathway to freedom marking the beginning and end of slavery in our nation.
★Starred Review – School Library Journal 2021 National Jewish Book Award Winner – Children’s Picture Book 2022 Sydney Taylor Book Award Honor for Picture Books Chicago Public Library Best Informational Books for Younger Readers 2021 The Best Jewish Children’s Books of 2021, Tablet Magazine
In Eliza Davis’s day, Charles Dickens was the most celebrated living writer in England. But some of his books reflected a prejudice that was all too common at the time: prejudice against Jewish people. Eliza was Jewish, and her heart hurt to see a Jewish character in Oliver Twist portrayed as ugly and selfish. She wanted to speak out about how unfair that was, even if it meant speaking out against the great man himself. So she wrote a letter to Charles Dickens. What happened next is history.(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)
Welcome to the GoodReadsWithRonna blog today, Nancy and Bethany. Congratulations onDear Mr. Dickens being recognized with a Sydney Taylor Honor in the children’s picture book category! I’m happy to be able to talk to you both about Eliza Davis, Charles Dickens, and his history of negatively portraying Jewish characters in his writing and how that changed because of Eliza’s letters.
INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR NANCY CHURNIN
GoodReadsWithRonna:Nancy, you mention in your acknowledgments that Dear Mr. Dickens had a long, joyful journey. Please tell us more about when and why you decided to dig into this not well-known but enlightening correspondence which is the basis for the book
Nancy Churnin:When I was a child, my mother always encouraged me to read whatever I wanted. The only time she questioned me was when I fell in love with the books of Charles Dickens. She couldn’t understand how I could like a writer that had created the ugly Jewish stereotype of Fagin in Oliver Twist. Didn’t I understand, she asked me, how that character fueled antisemitism, leading readers to believe that all Jewish people were liars and thieves like Fagin?
She was right. Ugly Jewish stereotypes were part of what made people lack compassion for the Jewish people who were tortured and killed in the Holocaust – where we lost so many family members. These were the kind of images that made neighborhood bullies persecute her and other Jewish children growing up in New York City. I wished I could have written Dickens a letter asking him why someone who had so much compassion for children and the poor could treat the Jewish people with such antipathy. Flash forward to 2013, three years before my first book, The William Hoy Story would be published, when I was in the library researching baseball and I flitted around the computer screen, landing on an article about Dickens.
That’s when I found two lines in an article that mentioned Eliza Davis, a Jewish woman who wrote to him – just as I’d dreamed of doing!—and changed his heart, inspiring him to write his first compassionate Jewish character, Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend. I had to know more! But all the article had was snippets from one of the letters. I asked the librarian for help. She found three places that had the letters: the University of Southampton in England, where you had to make a special appointment to view them; and two places in the U.S., one of which was at the University of North Texas rare book collection, less than 40 minutes from my home.
I called the University of North Texas librarian who put me in touch with Professor J. Don Vann, a Dickens scholar that had found Charles Dickens and His Jewish Characters, a 1918 out-of-print book from Chiswick Press in England that contained the letters and donated it to the library. Don and his now late wife Dolores, invited me to tea to discuss Eliza Davis. That’s when I felt compelled to turn this story into a book that I could share with my mother. I had rejections at first from editors that didn’t think a story about letters was exciting enough. It didn’t fit into the usual biography template as it wasn’t the story of either person’s life, but rather an encounter that changed their lives and changed the way English people who read Dickens thought about the Jewish people. I visited The Charles Dickens Museum in London in 2014, deepening my research. But even when my career as a published author began taking off in 2016, Dear Mr. Dickens sat there, waiting, not seeming to fit into any category anyone wanted. It just seemed to be a story that needed to simmer and be revised as I grew more confident in my ability to tell the story the way it needed to be told.
Finally, in 2020, Wendy McClure, my then editor at Albert Whitman, asked if I had something new. She said, for the first time, she wasn’t looking for biographies, but stories about history-changing encounters and events. I pulled Dear Mr. Dickens out of the drawer and gave it to her. She loved it right away. So did her editorial team. It was acquired with dizzying speed for a manuscript that had been waiting years to dance at the ball. But it was worth every moment. Because Wendy and our illustrator, Bethany Stancliffe, really got the story. When it went to print, it said everything I had wanted and hoped to say. I couldn’t wait to share it with my mother. When I did, she held it in her hands and read it over and over. Her face softened. I felt an old pain dissolve as she forgave Dickens – and me. We hugged as she read this true story about how people can, sometimes, change for the better if you speak up, persist and then, when the person who does wrong makes amends, forgive.
GRWR:We’re often told as children’s book writers to make the main characters kids but Eliza Davis is a woman and mother of 10 children. As an adult and Dickens fan, I found the information you shared about Eliza’s positive influence on Dickens fascinating. What do you think makes her a compelling character for young readers to learn about and what can they take away from the book?
Nancy:The most compelling stories for me are the journeys not of a person, but of a person’s dream. In most cases, those dreams start in childhood, so it’s natural to start the book with the character as a child. That’s not the case for Eliza Davis in Dear Mr. Dickens. She didn’t grow up dreaming of writing Charles Dickens a letter! But I had grown up dreaming that. I could put the urgency I felt as a child into what she did as an adult. I also did something I’ve never done in a picture book before. I appealed to young readers by starting my book in the second person: “Think of someone famous you admire. What would you do if that person said or wrote something unfair? Would you speak up? Would you risk getting that person angry? Eliza Davis did.” I believe these are questions that kids – and all ages – can relate to. I believe these are questions that can lead kids – and all ages – to speak up, stand up, and become upstanders when they see someone do or say something that isn’t right.
GRWR:When doing your research forDear Mr. Dickens, was there one particular piece of information you uncovered (included or not included in the book) that has had an impact on you?
Nancy:I hope people will read the Author’s Note which gives context to how important Eliza’s action may have been in historical impact. England was once one of the most hostile places for Jewish people. In 1275, centuries before Nazis introduced the yellow star, King Edward I decreed that Jews older than seven had to wear a large yellow badge of felt shaped like the tablet of the Ten Commandments on their outer clothing. Jewish people were segregated and had to live in restricted areas, were forbidden to lend money, and were unwelcome in trade guilds. In 1290, England expelled Jews who refused to convert; this was two centuries before the Spanish expelled their Jewish people during their Inquisition.
After Eliza Davis helped Dickens see the Jewish people with understanding and compassion, he not only created the kindly Mr. Riah, he advocated in his magazine for them to be treated fairly. Dickens wasn’t the only advocate for Jewish people, but his influence was enormous. Everyone from all classes, chimney sweeps to the Queen of England, read and revered him. Attitudes began to change during his lifetime. The Jews Relief Act of 1858 allowed Jews to serve in Parliament for the first time. I credit the change in English attitudes for the welcoming way that Great Britain opened its arms to thousands of Jewish refugee children during the Kindertransport at the start of World War II.
Eliza Davis wasn’t powerful or famous. All she did was write a letter. But speaking up and not backing down when justice is at stake can make a powerful difference. That’s what I learned from Eliza Davis. That’s what I hope young readers – and all readers – take to heart.
GRWR:Can you speak to your passion for writing nonfiction and also about sharing the stories of notable and in Eliza’s case less notable Jewish individuals?
Nancy: I love and read every genre and I hope, someday – maybe soon – to expand the type of books I write. But I’ll always pay homage to true stories — my mother’s favorite — because, as she’s told me, real people doing great things remind us that we can all do great things, too.
When I look for people to write about, I’m drawn to those who might not be known otherwise – such as Eliza Davis — or who have aspects of themselves that might not otherwise be known – such as Charles Dickens and his evolving view of Jewish people. I feel that every time I shine light on otherwise forgotten people, I’ve helped bring them back into our living, collective heart because it’s only when we have forgotten people or their deeds that they truly disappear.
I’m honored that Dear Mr. Dickens was given a Sydney Taylor Honor because Sydney Taylor provided positive Jewish role models for Jewish children like myself at a time when they were scarce. At first, Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books were like a little island in a sea of books about non-Jewish characters or Jewish characters that were ugly stereotypes. But since the awards were founded in 1968, they’ve done enormous good in encouraging the creation of books with positive Jewish role models for kids that need Jewish windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors. I’m grateful for this encouragement from the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee and for the Notable award for A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah (and for my 2019 Notable for Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing). Now, with sons planning marriages and, I hope, with grandchildren around the corner, I feel more passionate than ever about the mission bring more Jewish stories into the world that fill children’s hearts with courage, hope, and determination to heal the world.
INTERVIEW WITH ILLUSTRATOR BETHANY STANCLIFFE
GRWR:Bethany, what struck you most after reading Nancy’s manuscript?
Bethany Stancliffe:I was immediately impressed with the wonderful portrayal of Eliza in this story. Nancy’s writing beautifully captured what it must have felt like to be in Eliza’s shoes.
GRWR:How much research did you have to do to bring 19th century London, and in particular Eliza Davis and Charles Dickens, to life?
Bethany:It was important to gather a lot of visual references to make sure my illustrations were true to the characters and settings. Studying information and images documenting Charles Dickens and Victorian England was a significant step in the design process. There weren’t many photographs of Eliza available so it was a pleasant challenge to design her character in a way that conveyed her personality.
GRWR: One of my favorite illustrations is the one where two scenes, Dickens in his home and Eliza in hers, flow together with sheets of correspondence. Do you have a favorite spread and if so, what about it do you love?
Bethany: Thank you! One of my favorite spreads to paint was the scene of Eliza and her son walking together to post a letter to Mr. Dickens. While I was illustrating this book I had a toddler of my own running around which really helped me appreciate that Eliza was speaking up not only for herself but for others who may not be able to do so for themselves.
Thank you both so very much for taking the time to share your experiences working onDear Mr. Dickens. I’m also grateful that many misconceptions I and perhaps others had about Charles Dickens have been cleared up and hope everyone will read the book to see how one person’s voice made such a powerful impact.
Nancy Churnin is the award-winning author of multiple picture book biographies. The former theater critic for the Dallas Morning News and Los Angeles Times San Diego Edition, she’s now a full-time writer and peace negotiator between her dog and cats. She lives in North Texas.
Bethany Stancliffe grew up in the Rockies and studied art and illustration at Brigham Young University-Idaho. When she’s not painting, she enjoys exploring outside with her son, Max, and creating original stories with her husband.
The Arabic Quilt, written by Aya Khalil with art by Anait Semirdzhyan, is a thoughtful picture book that sensitively conveys the experience and emotions of any child who has ever felt uncomfortable with or ashamed of a second language spoken, or other customs practiced and foods eaten, at home whether a recent immigrant or not. When my husband’s family moved to America from Israel in 1955 they chose to speak only English and, while I understand their motivation of wanting to fit in, it’s sad my husband never learned Hebrew, or Yiddish and German for that matter, all the languages of his parents.
The main character in this story is Kanzi whose family is newish to America, hence the sub-title. When she later introduces herself in class at her new school she says “I am Egyptian-American. I love to swim. I love to write poetry.” But also on her first day of third grade she deliberately leaves behind a kofta (meatball) sandwich so that her somewhat less typical meal wouldn’t stand out. Much to her dismay, Kanzi’s mother shows up at school with the forgotten lunch and embarrasses her daughter in front of classmates when calling her an affectionate name in Arabic. This part resonated with me even though I never had that exact experience. But who cannot relate to that awful feeling of being ‘the other’ in some situation during their school years whether it was from being teased for crying, being un-athletic, wearing glasses, or having an uncommon background?
The theme of Khalil’s story feels current and fresh. No one apologizes for their differences and should not have to. The Arabic Quilt honors Kanzi’s family’s history and language which is empowering, and no one does it better than Kanzi’s teacher. I love how Mrs. Haugen knows just what to say and do to comfort her upset student after being teased, “Oh Kanzi, being bilingual is beautiful.” In fact, the story not only features Arabic words throughout, but Khalil’s included a helpful glossary at the end.
Mrs. Haugen suggests Kanzi bring the handmade quilt into school and, following the positive response, announces a special project. Kanzi and her mother will write the students’ names in Arabic and then Kanzi’s classmates can design their own paper quilt pieces. Even the class across the hall is inspired by Mrs. Haugen’s project that celebrates Kanzi’s Arabic language. The book aptly ends with Kanzi composing a poem to her parents where she thanks her parents for encouraging her to be proud of her unique language and how, like the assorted pieces of her teita’s quilt, language can actually bring us together.
One of my favorite Semirdzhyan illustrations depicts Kanzi writing poetry following her difficult first day while reassuringly wrapped in her cherished quilt from her teita (grandma) far away in Cairo. Another is the happy faces of the children admiring the finished paper quilt, the look of contentment on Mrs. Haugen’s face, and the pure joy on Kanzi’s face. The book’s art brings added warmth to this already meaningful story, and the ample white space allows the focus to be on the students, their interaction, and ultimately their own collage quilt that binds the kids in class together. Kanzi’s individual story is now woven into theirs, separate yet together. Between its important message of accepting differences, and being proud of one’s culture and language, The Arabic Quilt would make a welcome gift for Eid or for anyone eager to expand their child’s multicultural horizons. I recommend this lovely debut from Aya Khalil and hope you get a copy for yourself or for your child’s school from your local indie bookseller today.
Little sister Lulu loves her family: Mama, Daddy, and big brother Zane who “makes [her] laugh a lot.” Lulu’s given name is Luliwa which means “‘pearl’ in Arabic.” From Mama’s affectionate affirmations, Lulu knows she is as “unique and gorgeous” as the beautiful Kenyan pearl earrings her mother wears “all the time.”
As proud as she is about her identity, Lulu is equally frustrated at the confusion others feel about her biracial family and the hurtful, ensuing comments they make. This is a critical and eye-opening point in the book for both children and adult readers. The everyday, seemingly harmless comments and questions people ask are in fact questions that expose our deepest held biases and assumptions.
For Lulu, one particularly disturbing question is: “So, what are you?” In talking to her brother (who also confronts this question on a regular basis), Lulu learns how to respond to the fear and suspicion embedded in “THAT question”: self-love. Like Zane, Lulu coins her own “power phrase,” a bold and beautiful statement that emphasizes “not what” she is, “but who” she is. When her classmate, Billy, asks the distressing question, she proudly asserts her phrase. Lulu’s confidence in her own self-worth establishes a clear boundary, letting others around her know how she would like to be treated. Poh’s gentle and colorful illustrations echo Lulu’s quiet strength.
A must have for both the home and school library, Lulu the One and Only opens the door to nurturing conversations about diversity. Author Lynnette Mawhinney, who is biracial, includes a note in the back matter to further help families, caregivers and educators validate and support the experiences of biracial children.