Cover image for Night boat to freedom
Night boat to freedom
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
Reading Level:
780 L Lexile
Added Author:
At the request of his fellow slave Granny Judith, Christmas John risks his life to take runaways across a river from Kentucky to Ohio. Based on slave narratives recorded in the 1930s.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book EASY RAV 0 1

On Order



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. "Night Boat to Freedom" is a 2007 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

Author Notes

MARGOT THEIS RAVEN and E. B. LEWIS collaborated on Circle Unbroken , a Booklist Top 10 Black History Book for Youth. The author lives in Charleston, South Carolina; the artist, a Caldecott Honor recipient, lives in Folsom, New Jersey.

Reviews 4

Horn Book Review

What scares the head is best done with the heart."" Granny Judith speaks these words to twelve-year-old Christmas John to prepare him for a dangerous mission--rowing fellow slaves across the river to freedom. Lewis cloaks the escapees in dark hues to emphasize the danger in this story of hope inspired by the WPA's Slave Narrative Collection. (c) Copyright 2010. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

The team who created Circle Unbroken (2004) once again brings African American history close. Drawing on accounts in the Slave Narrative Collection, compiled during the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project, Raven presents her story from the viewpoint of Christmas John, 12, born on Christmas morning and raised on a Kentucky plantation by Granny Judith, who was captured as a child in Africa. One night Granny Judith asks him to row a young slave across the river to freedom in Ohio. Christmas John is scared, but he helps the slave and many others escape. Finally, it becomes too dangerous for him to stay on the plantation. Granny Judith wants him to leave, but how can he leave her behind? The older mentor is as tough as the young boy, and Lewis' beautiful, unframed double-page spreads depict the bond between them, including their heartbreaking farewell embrace. The close-ups filled with the richly colored details of Granny Judith's dyed quilts are in stark contrast to the pictures of the night sky and black water, and the shadows of the runaways in the woods. Words and pictures work perfectly together, making sound from silence and light from darkness. --Hazel Rochman Copyright 2006 Booklist

School Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Review

Drawing from hundreds of histories recorded in the Federal Writers' Project's Slave Narrative Collection, Raven quilts a composite tale set on the border between Kentucky--a slave state--and free Ohio. Granny Judith, a slave who dyes thread and weaves cloth, asks 12-year-old Christmas John, who she's raised, to do a brave thing: row a slave girl across the Ohio River to freedom. The boy repeats this act (historically, over four years' time) until it's too dangerous to continue. Raven both highlights the historical import of fabric arts in slave life and incorporates them metaphorically. Granny Judith, giving Christmas John a handmade shirt dyed "turkey red," his "freedom color," bids him to save himself. He returns from the river and collects the old woman, declaring, "Freedom's got no color for me without you." Multiple-award-winner Lewis's watercolors beautifully capture the loving relationship between Granny Judith and Christmas John, who he portrays as a strong adolescent grown bigger than his caregiver. He effectively paints the many moonless nightscapes, mist shrouding the fleeing figures. Handsome and affecting. (author's note) (Picture book. 6-9) Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.