Cover image for The secret to freedom
The secret to freedom
Publication Information:
New York : Lee & Low Books, c2001.
Physical Description:
1 v. (unpaged) : color illustrations.
Reading Level:
650 L Lexile
Added Author:
Great Aunt Lucy tells a story of her days as a slave, when she and her brother, Albert, learned the quilt code to help direct other slaves and, eventually, Albert himself, to freedom in the north.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book EASY VAU 1 1

On Order



Illustrated by Larry Johnson. Set during the years before the Civil War, this testament to the enduring bond of family tells the story of Lucy and her brother Albert, slaves who find the secret to their freedom in a sack of quilts. Part of a secret code, each pattern gives vital information to slaves planning to escape on the Underground Railroad. When Albert is caught helping the runaways and forced to flee, Lucy fears that she will never see him again. With full-page, full-colour illustrations throughout and an informative Author's Note. Ages 4-8.

Reviews 4

School Library Journal Review

Gr 2-4-A story of the Underground Railroad as told by a former slave to her great niece many years later. After Lucy's parents are sold, her older brother, Albert, tells her about the Underground Railroad. He explains that different patchwork quilt patterns provide secret messages to help escaping slaves and the two of them become involved in helping others find their way to freedom. After a serious beating, Albert runs away and Lucy doesn't know his fate. After the Civil War, she becomes a teacher and marries. Then one day, she receives a scrap of fabric in the mail from her brother in Canada. He is alive and well and bringing his family to visit her. Then readers realize that the child hearing the story is Albert's great granddaughter. Vaughn's well-written story is told with a modified colloquial language that hints at the unschooled plantation speech but is easily understood by today's readers. Johnson's expressive acrylic paintings are rich in color and emotion. An author's note explains the quilt code of a number of patterns that are pictured on the back cover.-Eunice Weech, M. L. King Elementary School, Urbana, IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Horn Book Review

Great-aunt Lucy tells about her childhood as a slave and her work on the Underground Railroad. She and her brother conveyed crucial messages to escaping slaves by hanging specific quilts on their fence (i.e., the wagon wheel pattern tells people that the time's come to pack their belongings). The accompanying paintings aptly convey the suspense and strong emotions in this well-told story. Bib. From HORN BOOK Fall 2001, (c) Copyright 2010. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Review

Great Aunt Lucy recalls the time just before the Civil War when as slaves she and her older brother, Albert, helped others escape by using the patterns in quilts to send secret messages. Albert was a blacksmith who was loaned to other plantations. After one such trip, he brought home a sack of quilts, which, he explained, held secret codes—the “monkey wrench” signaled to gather tools for the trip, “tumbling blocks” that it’s time to escape. When Albert gave the signal, ten-year-old Lucy would risk her life to help by hanging the appropriate quilt over the field fence for others to see. When Albert was badly beaten after being caught one night without a pass, he decided he had to leave, but couldn’t take Lucy because her lame leg would slow them down. Lucy survives the Civil War, working as a laundress and volunteering as a teacher and always wondering about her brother. Many years later, a letter arrives from Albert; he has married, lives in Canada, and is coming to visit. Enclosed is the piece of quilt that Lucy had given him when he left. While the basic story is powerful and touching, the vagueness of the time period is problematic. Dramatic double-paged, impressionistic paintings lack details that would clear up the confusion since they illustrate neither period dress, furnishings, nor style. Due to the mature nature of the material and one particularly disturbing spread of Albert being whipped by the overseer, this is a book for older children. (glossary, afterword) (Picture book. 9-11)

Booklist Review

Ages 5-8. A young girl listens to her Great-Aunt Lucy tell stories of life during slavery: Lucy's brother Albert becomes a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and Lucy assists him. Beaten by his suspicious owners, Albert reluctantly leaves his lame sister, and Lucy never knows if he has made it North. The Civil War ends, but Lucy isn't completely happy until many years later when she receives a message from Albert, alive and well in Canada. Part of that message is a small quilted square, a remembrance of the story's centerpiece, the sack of quilts that Albert brings to Lucy during their slave days. Each quilt pattern, designed with a secret code, gave information to slaves as they made their escape on the Underground Railroad. Although these signals are decoded in the text and more fully in an afterword, it's not always clear just how the pattern directed the runaways. A jarring note comes in the book's second spread when Great-Aunt Lucy says, "When I was about your age, I was a slave." Up until then, the story has seemed contemporary. On the plus side, the quilts-as-signals element is a fascinating sidelight to the history of the Underground Railroad, and the acrylic paintings, filled with both drama and warmth, speak of families, present and past. --Ilene Cooper