From School Library Journal
Grade 3–7—Born and raised a slave in coastal South Carolina, Smalls worked on the docks, then learned shipbuilding and piloting. In an amazing feat of daring in 1862, he stole a Confederate ship by impersonating the captain, sent a rowboat to pick up waiting family members, sailed past five Confederate forts, and turned the ship over to Union troops blockading the area. Smalls became the first African-American captain of a United States vessel; he later served in the South Carolina legislature and the United States Congress. He was featured in Eloise Greenfield's collective biography How They Got Over
(Amistad, 2003), but this book is an excellent vehicle to bring his story to a wider audience. Although presented in picture-book format, the text is detailed and there is a lot of it; the artistically beautiful but impressionistic images require some visual maturity from the audience. The oil paintings employ thick, bold strokes and deep saturated colors to convey Smalls's strength and determination in successfully delivering his and his crew's family members to freedom.—Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst, St. Christopher's School, Richmond, VA
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Halfmann focuses mostly on Smalls as a young slave whose master lets him work on the waterfront, and then on the planning of his secret escape to freedom. Spacious, impressionistic oil paintings accompany a text that describes Smalls, who, when the Civil War breaks out, uses his expert navigational skills and knowledge of the secret steam-whistle signals to guide his ship past harbor guards to escape with his family and crew. Suspense mounts as the women and children on the boat hide “in pindrop quiet” as their boat passes one, two, then three forts. When the boat finally reaches the Union side, the passengers must must prove that they are fugitives, not enemies. The strongly impressionistic art, largely in shades of brown and blue, will appeal most to older children; there are close-up portraits of Smalls studying charts and maps, and then open views of ocean and sky that speak to freedom. An afterword and source notes fill in Smalls’ important political role. . Grades 3-5. --Hazel Rochman