Night Boat To Freedom



When Granny Judith asks twelve-year-old Christmas John to row Molly, cook’s daughter, across the river from Kentucky to the Free State of Ohio, he’s terrified. Bravely, he begins the first of many journeys. Each time he returns, Granny Judith asks what color clothing his passenger wore, for she’s had a dream-vision and is making a quilt from squares of these “freedom colors.” When there are only two squares left, she tells him, “Dream says we got to get ourselves over the river, ’cause the danger’s gonna grow awful.”

This compelling story, powerfully and poignantly illustrated, is a memorable celebration of courage, hope, and unselfish love.



E.B. Lewis

E. B. Lewis is the highly acclaimed illustrator of more than thirty picture books, including The Bat Boy and His Violin by Gavin Curtis and Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys, by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard, both Coretta Scott King Honor Books. E. B. Lewis shines his light to the world through his artwork.



Hardcover, 40 pages
Published October 31st 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
ISBN 0374312664 (ISBN13: 9780374312664)
GoodReads link



IRA Notable Books for a Global Society

IRA Teachers’ Choices

Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year

Beacon of Freedom Award Nominee

Book Sense Children’s Pick

CCBC Choice (Univ. of WI)

NCSS-CBC Notable Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies

Booklist Editors’ Choice

Arkansas Diamond Primary Book Award Master List

Indiana Young Hoosier Award Master List

Kentucky Blue Grass Award Master List

Louisiana YR Choice Book Award Master List



Gr 2-6–Christmas John, 12, lives in a pine-board cabin with Granny Judith, who was enslaved when strangers lured her to their ship with a piece of red flannel. Now on a plantation in Kentucky, Granny Judith and Christmas John help others escape across the river to the free state of Ohio by taking advantage of John’s youth–he’s young enough to avoid notice, and old enough to row a boat across and back. Granny Judith stitches a quilt, incorporating the colors the escapees wear. What color is freedom tonight? As the quilt approaches completion and the risks grow, the time comes for their own escape. Based on several different narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project Slave Narrative Collection, Raven’s moving story is full of particulars that lend it authenticity. Lewis’s realistic watercolors use texture and shadow to an impressionistic effect, communicating the utter darkness in which Christmas John works, and the emotion contained in a single color. An author’s note shows how Raven pieced together her story like Granny Judith’s quilt, lending a context that makes this a rich story for adults and children to share.–Nina Lindsay, Oakland Public Library, CA


Bookshelves swell with black history
Author: Susie Wilde; Correspondent

I couldn’t have written this column when I began reviewing children’s books a quarter century ago. That was before Black History Month became a widely recognized event. Back then I was delighted to find any characters of color in a mainstream children’s book. Now African-American history books for children come in all lengths, genres and styles.

Margot Theis Raven’s “Night Boat to Freedom” (FSG) ages 7-10) tells the story of a young slave boy named Christmas growing up in Kentucky “a boat trip away from Ohio and freedom.” His family was sold away and he has been raised by Granny Judith, an older woman who dyes threads and weaves them into fabrics. When Christmas grows old enough, she urges him to risk his life rowing slaves to freedom, each time asking him what color the passenger wore. Raven’s prose — and her use of colors as metaphors for love and freedom — combine with E.B. Lewis’ illustrations — which often place bits of bright hue against blue-black and monochromatic background — to show the connection between colors and feelings.


State Journal-Register, The (Springfield, IL)
February 11, 2007

Celebrate Black History Month

Telling about triumph over bigotry and slavery is what makes these books recognizing February as Black History Month such hard-hitting, essential reading.

There are books for every age level, assuring that no child is too young or too old to find inspiration in the accomplishments of black Americans.

“Night Boat to Freedom” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16) features lush watercolors by Coretta Scott King Award and Honor winner E.B. Lewis, and a carefully researched historically based story by Margot Theis Raven.

Telling how a young boy in Kentucky rows slaves to freedom across the river to the free state of Ohio, the picture book details how perilous these journeys became. Children will be on the edge of their seats as Christmas John risks all to give freedom to so many, and finally takes the ultimate chance by rowing himself and his grandmother away from oppression.

As he hears the bloodhounds baying, he rows with all his might. How did he manage to do it so many times? As his grandmother told him, “What scares the head is best done with the heart.”

Atmospheric and dramatic, these illustrations fill the eyes. The narrative is bold and celebrates courage. Even a small child will understand how high the stakes were for those who dared to risk the punishment of whips and chains.


Illustration can be a powerful tool in storytelling
Author: SUE HARRIS; Special Correspondent

Historical fiction, Night Boat To Freedom (40 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $16) is told from the perspective of Christmas John, a boy striving to escape to freedom because of the encouragement of Granny Judith.

Author Margot Theis Raven bases her story on information gleaned from the Slave Narrative Collection.

Illustrator E. B. Lewis has an opportunity to use color and light in the initial portions of the book. Later, he highlights the night journey, with its necessary blackness, yet manages to include shadows and highlights. These accentuate facial features, body placement and posture, all tools to express the emotions experienced during the escape.

Readers will feel that they are inside the story. Their hearts will wrench from loss and rise toward freedom. When they see quilts, red shirts, wrinkled faces and the word “Ohio,” a signal of freedom, children will remember this story, one that takes hold in a powerful way.

Raven and Lewis are good at what they do, and they are at their best here. This book is an excellent addition to any children’s collection.


Winston-Salem Journal (NC)
February 11, 2007

Column: Young Reading

NIGHT BOAT TO FREEDOM. By MargotTheisRaven. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Ages 8-12. 40 pages. $16.

This beautiful, oversize picture book with illustrations by E.B. Lewis was inspired by true accounts gathered from former slaves during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration’s Slave Narrative Collection. That collection is some of the most fascinating, stomach-turning, conscience-churning material I’ve ever read.

But Night Boat to Freedom is uplifting. It tells the story of a 12-year-old boy sent by his grandmother to row fugitive slaves across the river at night to freedom. For two years, his oars slice through the dark waters in the middle of the inky night as he ferries his passengers to a new life and a new home.

All the while, his grandmother sews a quilt, saying the journeys will end when she gets to the last square. The quilt is for the boy and for the final journey, which is to be his. However, he cannot and will not leave without his grandmother.


Inspiring tales of black history: King, Carver, Tubman and Christmas John come alive in four new books for youth
Author: The Chicago Sun-Times

During the Depression, many writers interviewed and recorded the stories of former slaves in the Federal Writers’ Project. Now, based on several of those recollections, comes a powerful new picture book, Night Boat to Freedom by MargotTheisRaven with pictures by E.B. Lewis (Melanie Kroupa/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 40 pages, $16) for ages 8 and up.

Christmas John and his Granny Judith were slaves who could see freedom in Ohio just across the river from their master’s farm in Kentucky. Judith, who as a girl was enticed aboard a slave ship in Africa with pieces of red cloth, becomes a master colorist and quilter in America — and red has become symbolic of both slavery and freedom.

Urged on by his grandmother, Christmas John becomes a part of the Underground Railroad at age 12, rowing people across the river. The taut story of his work and finally their escape unfolds in simple but elegant language: “I grew so quiet you could’ve heard a sewin’ needle fall on feathers. I was twelve summers grown and strong hulk of a boy, but I felt feeble as a baby knowin’ what she wanted me to do.”

Watercolor paintings, from blue-black night to the colors of the freedom quilt and a hopeful daytime, match the mood and theme.


Capital Times, The (Madison, WI)
December 29, 2006

Author: Karyn Saemann Correspondent for The Capital Times

Really good books for and about African-American children are rare. “Night Boat to Freedom” by MargotTheisRaven with illustrations by E.B. Lewis is based on the true stories of former slaves as collected by the Great Depression’s Federal Writers’ Project.

A 12-year-old enslaved African-American boy’s grandmother persuades him to illegally ferry slaves to freedom across the river that separates Kentucky from the free state of Ohio.

It’s dangerous work, done under the cover of night in a rickety rowboat. But the boy, named Christmas John, continues despite the threat of being caught. Each night, when he returns, he tells his grandmother what color clothing passengers were wearing. Slowly, she fashions a quilt with a colored square representing what each had on.

As a writer and illustrator team, TheisRaven and Lewis are responsible for one of the most stirring African-American children’s books in recent years. “Circle Unbroken,” released in 2004, won numerous national honors.

Individually, Lewis’ many illustrated titles include Jacqueline Woodson’s “Coming On Home Soon,” which won a 2004 Caldecott honor.

In “Night Boat to Freedom” language flows smoothly and effortlessly. The text is longer than typical picture books, but never tiresome.

The softly edged illustrations, that sometimes make striking use of color and at other times show characters shrouded in nighttime mists, are unforgettable.

One of the most stirring illustrations depicts Christmas John’s grandmother as a young woman, her head despondently in her hands as she grips the red cloth that slave traders used to lure her out of her African village. A slave ship is pulling her, and the red cloth, through a red-tainted ocean.


Based on several different narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project Slave Narrative Collection, Raven’s moving story is full of particulars that lend it authenticity.

— School Library Journal