Cline-Ransome, Lesa. Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass. Illustrated by James E. Ransome. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2012. ISBN 9781416959038. $16.99. Ages 5-9.
It is never too early for a child to start learning history and about the past that has helped to shape our nation and make it what it is today. Words Set Me Free is a picture book adaptation of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an influential book everybody should read at some point in their life. This picture book is a great way to educate and inspire an early interest in reading the full book.
As far as picture books go, Words Set Me Free is rather wordy and lengthy, and is a book that beginning readers should probably read alongside an adult, so that they can be sure to be able to understand all of the text, and be able to discuss the issues the book addresses. This book could never be taken as light reading. The author is not overly graphic when discussing the hardships of being a slave, but she also does not mince words, nor hide the fact that life was cruel for Frederick.
The illustrations, done as very realistic paintings, also portray the truth of the subject matter without being too explicit or scary. For example, in one part of the book, Frederick’s master finds out that his wife is teaching Frederick his letters and becomes very angry. Instead of depicting Frederick being punished by his master, the illustrator painted a silhouette of the master in an angry pose, with a scared young Frederick cowering below. This way, the master’s disapproval and Frederick’s fear are portrayed, but with subtlety.
One thing I find interesting is how the author chooses to end the book. Obviously, this picture book only portrays a snippet of the actual events detailed in the full Narrative, but the book ends with an epilogue where Frederick forges a letter in his master’s name that seemingly will win him his freedom. But when you read the author’s note on the next page, you realize that it is much later on in his life that Frederick actually becomes free. I suppose it could just be that the author simply did not wish to prolong the story, but still wanted to end the book optimistically.
Other than introducing American history, I think that the best themes of this book are about perseverance and the power of words and reading and how they can change your life. For children who do not really enjoy books, that is a powerful lesson in the importance of reading and of not giving up.