About the Book

Runaway is a picture book biography of Ona Judge, an enslaved servant in the home of George and Martha Washington, who fled to freedom in 1796. The author’s focus is primarily on Judge’s story, her escape, and the value of freedom and liberty. Shepard’s telling is appropriate for primary-grade students and rich enough for meaningful classroom discussion in the upper elementary grades.

About the Author

Ray Anthony Shepard is a grandson of a slave, a former teacher, and retired editor- in-chief of a major education publishing company. He is a graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Education and the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he received a Martin Luther King Jr. Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Now retired, he is dedicated to a new “personal chapter” for himself as an author, specializing in chronicling the little-known facts of the Black experience in the United States.

“I write to provide readers of any age, especially secondary school students, with a fuller view of American slavery and a corrective history of the struggle and anguish of courageous individuals who sought to pursue full American citizenship.”

–Ray Anthony Shepard

Background Information

You may wish to provide students with additional information about Ona Judge before or after reading the book. The Washington Library at mountvernon.org has an interesting, student-friendly history of Judge. Students may also enjoy Mount Vernon character interpreter Brenda Parker’s retelling of Judge’s history in the video George Washington’s Escaped Slave: Ona Judge.

Guided Reading Questions

Cover: Read the title and have students look at the cover. Who do you think Ona Judge is? What can you tell about her from the title and the cover?

Spread 2: What is happening on these pages? How do you know? How do you think Ona is feeling? Why do you think she is called “Oney” in the text?

Spread 3: What does the text tell you about what life is like for Ona? What does her expression in the picture tell you? Why do you think someone with “fancy bonnets” and “soft shoes” would want to run away?

Spreads 4–5: Explain that “the Lady” is Martha Washington, wife of President George Washington. What do these pages reveal about how the Lady values Ona? Point out the repeated question “Why you run Oney Judge?” Who do you think is asking this question? What does the question help you to think about?

Spreads 6–7: What do these pages show about how Ona is treated differently from the other servants and enslaved people in the household? Do you think this special treatment makes her happier? Explain your thinking.

Spread 8: Younger students may need help understanding that the men at the table shaped American history and crafted the Declaration of Independence, which states that “all men are created equal” and have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Why do you think the author asks the question “Do you think they meant you?”

Spread 10–11: Why do you think Ona is compared to a pet, a favorite chair, and a pair of stockings? What does this tell you about how Ona is valued?

Spread 12: How does Ona’s relationship with Eliza change? Why do you think this is?

Spread 13–14: What is happening on these pages? Reread the sentences beginning with “Didn’t you know.” What information do these sentences give you? Do you think Ona knows these things?

Spread 15: Younger students may need help understanding that these pages refer to the Underground Railroad, a network that helped slaves escape to freedom.

Spread 16: Explain the following words on this page: “fugitive” refers someone who has run away and is hiding to avoid the law; “liberty” means freedom. What do these pages tell you about why Ona chooses liberty, even if it means being a fugitive?

Spread 17: What does the last line of the story tell you about the author’s feelings about Ona Judge’s decision to run away? Do you agree with the author? Explain your reasoning.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think the question, “Why you run Oney Judge?” is repeated throughout the book? How does it help you to consider Ona’s actions and feelings? How does it reveal what some people in Ona’s life may have failed to understand about her?
  2. This book is written from Ona Judge’s perspective. How do you think the story would be different if it were told from the point of view of a different character in the book? Why?
  3. What does Ona Judge’s story say about the value of liberty and freedom?

Additional Links

  • rayanthonyshepard.com 
/ Ray Anthony Shepard’s website has more information about the author, the book Runaway, and Now or Never!, his award-winning book for young adults about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, an all-Black Union regiment.
  • facinghistory.org / 
Facing History and Ourselves has a searchable database of educator resources for the teaching about slavery and the history of race in the United States.

Ray Anthony Shepard is available for appearances & events.

Contact him to learn more about speaking engagements.