Robert Smalls: Tales of the Talented Tenth #3

RSmallsOnce again Joel Christian Gill brings us the story of an important figure in Black history whose achievements are not well known. This graphic novel chronicles the life of Robert Smalls, an enslaved man from South Carolina who pulled off a most daring flight to freedom.

Despite growing up on a plantation Smalls’ early life was not as harsh as it was for most enslaved children. He didn’t understand the rules were different for him than for the white children from the ”big house” he was allowed to spend most of his time playing with. Eventually Smalls’ owner sent him from the big house out to the fields, believing once Smalls experienced the brutal reality of enslavement he would become he would become more submissive. However, Smalls never forgot those early feelings of freedom; instead of making him more compliant, experiencing the cruelty of enslavement made him more defiant.

Smalls’ owner realized he was smart but, since he couldn’t have a fearless slave on the plantation, he sent him away to Charleston. There he was given work piloting boats and became masterful at maneuvering through South Carolina’s waterways. He and the other enslaved men on the crew of the CSS Planter handled everything on the boats. They covered for the white captain and crew when they were drunk or off carousing on shore. Their recklessness inspired Smalls to plan the daring heist. By impersonating the captain – which he’d had to do before – he stole the boat, made it past confederate checkpoints and successfully took several enslaved people and their families north to freedom.

His accomplishments didn’t end there. He had successful careers in business and politics, including holding elected statewide and national offices.

Instead of a straightforward panel-by-panel telling of Smalls’ life story, Gill sets it as a conversation between two friends discussing great Black men. As one recounts the story of Robert Smalls’ life, the other asks questions that uncover more fascinating details about him. Gill’s images are powerful when expressing a range of emotions – readers will feel fear, anger and joy just as the characters do. The somber color palette evokes feelings of oppression and limited possibility. The bibliography contains sources for more information about Robert Smalls’ life. All told, this volume deserves a place in classroom, school and public libraries.

Find Robert Smalls: Tales of the Talented Tenth #3 in your local bookstore or comic book shop.

To learn about the accomplishments of other overlooked Black people, find Gill’s Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives From Black History, Volumes I and II.

Freedom Fighting Kids – and Dinos

Never underestimate the power of a child on a dinosaur.

38276982This historical fantasy is set during the Civil War and draws on actual events: the New York City draft riots and the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum in July of 1863. In this version of that time, dinosaurs are still around, having been domesticated and put into use for various tasks. The story revolves around Magdalys Roca and her friends who live at the Colored Orphan Asylum. During a field trip to a theater they get caught up in the draft riots and find their orphanage has been burned to the ground. Even scarier, they are almost captured by the Kidnapping Club, a group of men who abduct colored people and sell them south into slavery. Magdalys, (who discovers she can somehow psychically communicate, understand and control dinosaurs), and the other orphans along with a few performers from the theater fight their way to safety aboard a brachiosaur. They find a safe house on Dactyl Hill, named for the pterodactyls who nest there. The crew learns that the Kidnapping Club has captured most of the colored orphans and is planning to sell them into slavery. With the help of a few adults and some powerful dinos, the children lead the battle against the kidnappers to free their friends.

Older successfully tells a story of brave children set inside the brutal reality of abuse of people of color by pro-slavery profiteers, riots, lynchings and the Civil War. The inclusion of dinosaurs ratchets up the excitement in the most dramatic scenes. The narrative doesn’t sugar coat the threats to the characters of color present during that time, but still makes the issues accessible to younger readers, say 10 and up. I admit to giving a side eye to the idea of dinosaurs + civil war, but I have to say, it really works.

Daniel José Older, Dactyl Hill Squad, Arthur A. Levine

Note: You can find this book at your local bookstore on September 11th.

 

These Undead Give Me Life

Dread Nation is the book I really can’t shut up about. 30223025

The Civil War is interrupted when, instead of fighting each other, soldiers find themselves having to fight the dead rising up from the battlefield. Given the times, African/African-American slaves and Native Americans are forced to become the zombie killers. Young female slaves are sent to special schools to become Attendants, trained in defending young white women from the undead – and the untoward intentions of young men. The premise is exciting and very well executed. This book stands above others because the issues surrounding the premise – racism, colorism, sexism, classism – bring the plot to life completely organically.  The zombie battles and other supernatural elements play out in creepy detail. A particularly pleasing element is the cover – unlike covers which whitewash or have little to no connection to the story, this one is a beautiful rendition of the young zombie killer in all her brown-skinned, scythe wielding glory. This one belongs on the top of your “to be read” pile.

Dread Nation, Justina Ireland, Balzer + Bray