Now boarding the Underground Railroad


February 20, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

In "Tar Beach," Faith Ringgold painted an allegory of freedom. When Cassie Louise Lightfoot, 8, leaves the roof of her apartment building and flies over New York City, she is master of all she surveys.

Ms. Ringgold's second picture book is about a journey to freedom. In "Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky" (Crown, $15, ages 4-10), Cassie is swept back in time to the days of slavery, and she must escape over the treacherous route known as the Underground Railroad.

Cassie meets Harriet Tubman, who will guide her through the woods surrounding the plantation to the safe haven of a farmer's attic. At each hiding place, Cassie hears Aunt Harriet's voice, whispering like the wind: "Follow the river north until you reach a clapboard house with green shutters and a red-brick chimney. There will be a blind railroad agent who will ask you to sing a song. You will sing 'Go down, Moses -- way down in Egypt land! Tell ole Pharaoh, let my people go!' "

Cassie's baby brother, Be Be, has gone before her and is in Canada, waiting to be reunited with her. Cassie is frightened, but she finds the courage to continue, even as the haunting faces of white men stalk her.

At last she reaches Niagara Falls -- "a giant tea party with a billion cups of steaming hot tea being poured to a resounding applause" --

and she is able to fly again, to Be Be and to freedom.

Like "Tar Beach," in "Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky" Ms. Ringgold's powerful folk paintings tell a story that invites readers to let their imaginations soar along with Cassie. It's one of the best books with a black history theme available to younger readers.

* Unfortunately, the same can't be said for "Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom," by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (Knopf, $16, ages 7-12). Three of the most talented people in children's publishing have collaborated on a book that falls short of expectations.

It's good, but it doesn't live up to standards set by the same trio in "The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales." The Dillons' black-and-white illustrations are gorgeous, but the stories don't have the same soul. Maybe they're just too short. The story of Frederick Douglass takes three pages; Harriet Tubman gets 2 1/2 .

Ms. Hamilton does introduce many lesser-known heroes. But I wanted more insight into the lives of people like Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who murdered one of her young daughters upon their capture because she couldn't bear to see her returned to slavery.

The breadth of this book is commendable, but depth is sacrificed.

* The quick-hit approach can work, as demonstrated in "Interesting People: Black American History

Makers," by George L. Lee (Ballantine paperback, $5.99, ages 7 and up).

Mr. Lee created "Interesting People" in 1945 as a syndicated feature in black newspapers across the country. Longtime readers of papers such as The Afro-American will recognize Mr. Lee's portraits and short biographies of everyone from educator Fannie L. Jackson Coppin to Bill Cosby.

Mr. Lee began his career as a sports cartoonist in 1926, but he lost his free-lance work in 1933, when publishers found out he was black. His weekly "Interesting People" profiles ran in the black press from 1945 to 1948, and from 1970 to 1986.

In a style similar to the "Ripley's Believe It or Not" comic-page features, Mr. Lee drew a portrait of a person and often included a cartoon-like insert about some phase of the person's life. For example, in the feature on country singer Charley Pride, there's a cartoon about his pitching career with the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro Leagues.

More than 200 profiles are included in the book. Readers find out that Sadie Tanner Alexander was the first black woman in the United States to receive a doctorate (in economics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1921). Parren Mitchell is here, along with Oscar Robertson. The short, fact-filled biographies are perfect for browsing, and kids looking for a homework project can find plenty of subjects worth further research.

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