My mom instilled a love of picture books in me very young. She taught me, first, to love to read, and then through her appreciation of amazing illustrations, she showed me how to love art. One of my favorite sections of the bookstore is still the picture book shelves, where I can sit for hours and read stories decorated with the art of skilled hands.
So it’s not any wonder that I LOVE Jacob Lawrence’s Harriet and the Promised Land. I’ve long been a fan of Lawrence’s work as a painter – his primitive-inspired pieces are anything but naive, and his work in this book is the same.
Each page includes an unique painting that accompanies the story of Harriet Tubman’s work as the Moses of the Underground Railroad, and the book inspires both as an artifact and as a history.
In the Details
The story of Harriet Tubman is one many of us know – a woman who escaped from slavery and then returned 19 times to help others do the same. She’s a hero, an American legend, and a strong figure of power and strength. Someday, I’m going to spend a lot of time talking with her.
In Lawrence’s hands, her story – the story of slavery – comes to life with his illustrations. Each image includes great details like the building of the master’s house, and the way chickens would be an ever-present on a plantation. The North Star, Tubman’s guide on her journeys, figures in with a gentle symbolism, and Tubman’s famous shawl takes on ruby-red color that is as vibrant as her strength.
The colors are rich and bright, a refreshing alternative to the way slavery is often depicted in grays, browns, and blacks. Lawrence paints the beauty in the people without denying the horror in the situation.
My favorite painting is of a young Tubman sitting at the feet of an older enslaved woman and listening to her tell the story of Moses and the Isrealites. The power of story painted true.
A Writer’s Eye View
The text of Harriet and the Promised Land is rhyming verse, probably a pentameter, but I admit to not scanning the poetry fully. But this rhythm and rhyme give the story a playful but not diminutive tone, and I was reminded of the way that the sounds of words and word together can deepen meaning while also making words dance.
Additionally, Lawrence begins the book with a prose description of Tubman’s live, which gives the reader a chance to take in Tubman’s story with gravity before moving into the powerful whimsy and truth of the rhyme.
Plus, the book is dedicated to the strong women of the world, and how could I not love that.
If you enjoy beautiful picture books, want a great book to talk with your children about slavery and the Underground Railroad, are a fan of Lawrence’s work, or just enjoy a powerful story told well, this book is for you.
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