Voices from the Underground Railroad
by Kay Winters (Author) and Larry Day (Illustrator)

Booktalk: It’s the 1850s and enslaved siblings Jeb and Mattie are about the make a break for freedom. The pair travel north from Maryland to New Bedford, Massachusetts along the Underground Railroad. Each spread tells about a step of their journey through a poem in the first person perspective. The main and repeating voices are Jeb and Mattie, but we also hear from the stationmasters and conductors, those who offer them haven, as well as those who want to capture them.


Guest Post by Kay Winters

Kay Winters was a classroom teacher, reading specialist and college instructor, as well as a language arts consultant for the American International Schools in Egypt, Nepal, India, Jordan, Greece, Israel and Italy before changing jobs to follow her dream and write for children. She specializes in picture books and chapter books, ages 3 to 12.She has appeared on CSpan, Book TV, and PBS. Her twenty-two books have won numerous awards, and she has two books coming out in 2018. She is a frequent speaker at colleges, regional and national conferences for teachers, writers and librarians and loves doing school visits.

Q. Describe your writing process.
A. My writing process is heavily influenced by my years of classroom teaching. During the time I worked with students ages 6 to 12 in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and overseas with the American International Schools, most of all,  I wanted to give them the gift of reading . . . the gift that keeps on giving. Reading  is equally important for the writing process. If you are a reader you are always learning. You acquire a love of language, a sense of plot and an instinct for strategies that bring characters alive. It doesn’t take long to hear If the dialogue sings or is flat, or the characters lively or lifeless.

As a teacher I read, read, read, old and new children’s books. Whether the students were in first grade or sixth, I read to them. I wanted them to discover the magic of story.

As a writer, I read ,read, read, old and new children’s books, and what I absorb, enlarges, expands,and enhances my own work.

When I began the first of my Voices books, Voices of Ancient Egypt, illustrated by Barry Moser, published by National Geographic, I got the idea of using voices of villagers in ancient Egypt,from a collection of poems by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold. Prayers from the Ark. All the poems in her book personify the voices of animals.

The Duck says:

Protect all folk who quack

And everyone who knows how to swim

I thought…why not have each villager speak, describe his occupation, his setting, his hopes? Here in part is the voice of the scribe:

I study day and night

Learn law,literature and mathematics,

Copy retold tales.

I am my father’s dream

Daring to be more than he.

This first book, like the others that follow (Colonial Voices: Hear Them Speak, Voices from the Oregon Trail, and Voices from the Underground Railroad) is written with an individual voice on each page and lends itself to readers theater. Students have been very enthusiastic about performing the poems.

Q: Tell us about your latest book.
A. My newest book, Voices from the Underground Railroad, is illustrated by Larry Day. I got the idea for the book from stories I heard about a local potter in Quakertown, PA. where we lived. Richard Moore was a Quaker, a teacher and a potter, who had an active station on the Underground Railroad in his house. Freedom seekers would come to the back door. He would hide them, then move them on to the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia.

After doing some preliminary research, reading about conditions that enslaved people were enduring, possible routes they took, slave catchers who pursued them, and people who helped along the way, my husband and I set out to take the route my characters would take. This is a strategy I always use when working with historical fiction.

Our planned locations changed as we traveled. We started at Havre de Grace in Maryland where characters, Mattie and Jeb lived. They had to run because the auctioneer was coming. We stayed in a bed and breakfast that boasted a secret passageway from attic to cellar. We went on to Berkley or Darlington as it was called then, and saw likely crossing spots on the Susquehanna River to Pennsylvania. We planned to go on to Columbia,Pa., include  Quakertown, Philadelphia and end in New Bedford, MA. But in Columbia, we took a tour offered by their historical society. At one of the re-enactments, we met William Whipper, a black owner of a railroad complex, and part of the Underground Railroad. He had secret compartments built into his boxcars, used for hauling lumber to Philadelphia. I saw that Mattie and Jeb could take his train to Philadelphia, eliminating Quakertown, and go by steamship to New Bedford, MA.

I chose New Bedford as a landing place because it was a popular stop and I wanted an alternative to Canada. In New Bedford, I discovered that slave catchers never succeeded in recapturing a prey. The liberty bell in the center of town, would ring if a suspect arrived. Townspeople would gather armed with hoes, rakes, clubs, guns. New Bedford was also desirable because whaling ships went out on a regular basis. Ship captains were glad to hire freedom seekers as new crew members. The ships would be gone for over a year.

The head of the historical society showed us where the steamships came in, where the abolitionists lived, and the black community settled. We spent time in the library with the historian, examining old photographs and documents. I wanted to use various forms of transportation. Because of the route, I could now include a rowboat, a carriage, a real railroad, a farm wagon and a steamship. It was time to come home and write the book. After I completed the text, written in poetic prose, I revised. And revised. And revised.

The bibliography came next, followed by historical notes and my author’s comments. I sent it off for editing. At last, the proofs arrived. And finally that day came . . .
Opening the box of books left outside my door. . .
For an author . . there’s nothing like it!

Thanks for sharing your new book, Kay!

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