The Daring Escape of Ona Judge
“a distinctive, haunting voice, and powerful images”
—Kirkus, Stared Review
“A fine addition to collections.”
Runaway is a picture book biography of Ona Judge, a biracial enslaved servant, who defied George and Martha Washington and the first Fugitive Slave Act when she fled from President’s House in Philadelphia (1796). The story focuses on Ona’s decision, and the risks she faced escaping from the life she knew—enslavement—to the unknown life as a fugitive in New Hampshire, a state in the process of becoming slavery free.
Told in verse, Ona’s story shows readers that the desire for liberty and fairness is more potent than “soft” enslavement. Although treated well by the Washingtons, Ona was still enslaved and unable to be an advocate for her own life. Runaway gives readers a fuller understanding of American slavery at the time of the founding of a nation that declared itself a place of freedom.
This book doesn’t shy away from the horrors of slavery; it uses a rhetorical refrain to pull the reader into Ona’s decision: “Why you run, Ona Judge?” This haunting meditation welcomes meaningful and necessary conversation among readers. Keith Mallett’s rich illustrations add further to the feeling and majesty of Ona’s brave and daring escape.
“The true story of a young enslaved woman who escapes the family of George Washington. ‘Ona Judge, Ona Judge / Why you run away / Ona Judge?’ So begins this inquiry into her quest for freedom; the question is repeated throughout the narrative. ‘You had fine dresses [and] soft shoes’ and other material benefits most enslaved people lacked. Ona is passed around the Washington family, first a playmate for the children, then a personal servant and seamstress for Martha Washington, never working in the fields. But when an aging Martha gives Ona to her granddaughter Eliza, ‘now a mean and sassy woman,’ Ona walks out into the Philadelphia night. Here, the tenor of the text changes—’Didn’t you know you broke the law?’—and the illustrations become dark as she makes her way around corners and hides in a basement. A framed picture—a departure from the full-bleed pages and spreads that depicts the current action—gives a glimpse of her future family life: ‘You dreamed a dream / You would make true.’ As she reaches a boat, and freedom, day breaks and readers see the first hint of Ona’s smile. ‘Then run, Ona Judge, run.’ With a distinctive, haunting voice, powerful images, and thought-provoking story structure, this unique look at a remarkable young woman’s life choices and decisions offers an utterly necessary but seldom highlighted perspective on the contradictions within our society’s foundations. A powerful antidote to whitewashed cultural mythology.”
– Kirkus Reviews, starred review ★
“Safety and freedom are the considerations Ona Judge must weigh in this historical picture book based on the life of a woman enslaved by Martha Washington. In the scenes of Judge’s early life, she is always shown marginalized, frowning off to the side of her illustrious owners. ‘Why you run, Ona Judge?’ is the narrator’s refrain, which initially is supported by the idea that the young, Black woman’s life was relatively privileged: she didn’t work in the fields, was well fed and clothed, and saw history being made in the president’s house. But Shepard quickly exposes the lie of that argument, showing that Judge had no choice in whether she stayed with her mother or even was given to someone else, and the reasons to run away, further emphasized by Mallet’s finely detailed illustrations, will be self-evident to young readers. An author’s note, time line, bibliography, and list of places to visit add important ways to help children gain a more nuanced view of American history. A fine addition to all collections.”
– Karen Cruze, Booklist
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