I picked up The Escape of Oney Judge at the KPL display for Black History Month, partly because it has a girl heroine, and partly because Emily Arnold McCully illustrates in watercolour and I am a sucker for watercolour. It’s so delicate and muddled and precise all at the same time. I also like that the book is a quiet commentary on the slave-owning habits of Martha and George Washington. The Washington’s had slaves! Sakes alive, who would have thought! Since I’m not an “American” (flag-waving or otherwise), I have no particular feelings about the Washingtons, but it’s still nice to have a book that plainly states this fact about the first First Family. I have no idea if it’s a shocking fact or not – do U.S. schools teach children that the Washingtons were slave-owners? – but it may be, and I like a bit of historical shock factor.
Oney grows up in the Washington household, a child of a white man and a house-slave. The book begins when she is called up by Martha Washington who invites/orders Oney to come up to the house and learn to be a house-slave. Oney is happy because she can then spend more time with her mother. Then George Washington becomes the “father of the country” and Oney leaves Mount Vernon to live in the various capital cities of the young United States. Although she is treated kindly, she (and the reader) are always subtly or not-so-subtly reminded of her status. Over time, Oney starts thinking about freedom and, when the threat of being sold looms, she makes a quick escape.
For a picture book, this book has a lot of words. It’s also quite historical. I think that for a smaller child, the “growing up in the house” and “starching caps and dresses” parts of the book may be boring. That said, escape and its aftermath are bound to be interesting and gripping/scary. I was reading Cookie Monster and the Cookie Tree the other day to a four-year-old, and I really had to rush through some of the text the first time because he was getting a bit bored (by the time I read it the nth time, he was more patient because he already knew the story). So I’m not sure how to rate the reading age for this historical and wordy picture book. Someone with good concentration skills and an interest in the olden days would be able to sit through it…probably around 5-6ish. The thing is, slavery is a topic with so much meat in it that with an older child you could read the book and then have lots of questions and discussion afterwards. So that brings us up to around 7-8, I think.
Reading ages: Long story short, 5-8.
Rating: B+. I like historical fiction. I liked the illustrations. I liked the story. But I didn’t love it.