Capturing an American Icon

Husband and wife author and illustrator pair Lesa Cline-Ransome and James Ransome have a whole slew of picture books under their belt, over a dozen books she’s written and he’s illustrated, many of them biographies.

But their newest, Before She Was Harriet, which will be on shelves next week, may be their best work to date. It’s a portrait of American hero Harriet Tubman, a woman about whom many picture books have been written.

The author opens the book with Tubman as an “old woman,” the iconic Harriet Tubman, James’s painting showing her staring straight out at the reader. Her face is weathered; she’s “tired and worn / her legs stiff / her back achy.” Using the book’s title as a guide for the text’s very construction, Lesa then leads the reader backward in Harriet’s life, stage by stage.

Before those wrinkles on her face formed in her old age, she walked for miles. Before that, she was a suffragist. Before that, she was General Tubman, as she ferried slaves to freedom. Her work as a Union spy; her work as a nurse; her role as “Aunt Harriet” in helping her parents flee their master; her role as Moses, a conductor on the Underground Railroad; her life as Minty, a slave; her childhood as Araminta, “a young girl / taught by her father / to read / the woods / and / the stars / at night / readying / for the day” – all of this is laid out in spare free verse. Readers see these wide-angle snapshots of the life of a woman whose courage never wavered – and whose work as an abolitionist and women’s suffragist saved lives and advanced women’s causes.

The writing here is tightly focused and well-constructed, Lesa bringing readers in close to see and know Harriet. As a suffragist, the author writes, Harriet’s voice was “loud / and angry / rising above injustice” – before, that is, her voice became “soft and raspy” in her old age. Harriet tended as a nurse to wounded soldiers, healing them with bandages and words. Lesa uses vibrant figurative language to bring Harriet to life, describing her as a “wisp of a woman / with the courage / of a lion.”

James kicks everything off with the illustration of a train chugging along. Next, on the title page spread, we see Harriet waiting at a train station. In the book’s final spreads, we see her boarding that same train. She sits with dignity, a woman who dreamed, Lesa writes, of living long enough to “one day / be old / stiff and achy / tired and worn and wrinkled and free.” (It’s moving, I must add, to see James’s dedication in this book: The book is in honor of black women, those who have worked, as Harriet did, with dignity – and grace.)

There are some unforgettable illustrations here, all of them capturing Harriet’s determined spirit, as well as her humanity, and all of them rendered viaBefore She Was Harriet spread watercolors. (This is noteworthy, given that for years, James worked exclusively in oils, and now often works in oils and acrylics, though this certainly isn’t the first time he’s worked in watercolors.) In my favorite spread, we see Harriet, as a young woman, leaning forward in the night. She leans on a walking stick, light on her face and torso. Here, we read, she could walk for miles. Next, we see her seated proudly at the helm of a boat, as she ferries slaves to freedom. Later, we see her as Araminta, a young girl; this is the same illustration we see on the book’s cover (with some variations), the young Harriet framed by a glowing moon. The spreads throughout the book are full-bleed ones, as if even these pages can’t hold the resolute power that embodied Harriet.

The book does not close with informational back matter (sources, notes for further reading, etc.), but children may be prompted to want to learn even more about Harriet’s life. And, best of all, they will be reminded that courage comes in many forms -- and at many times in one’s life.

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.

BEFORE SHE WAS HARRIET. Copyright © 2017 by Lesa Clline-Ransome. Illustrations © 2017 by James E. Ransome. Spread reproduced by permission of the publisher, Holiday House, New York. 


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