Overground Railroad

by Lesa Cline-Ransome (Author) James E Ransome (Illustrator)

Reading Level: 4th – 5th Grade

A window into a child's experience of the Great Migration from the award-winning creators of Before She Was Harriet and Finding Langston.

Climbing aboard the New York bound Silver Meteor train, Ruth Ellen embarks upon a journey toward a new life up North-- one she can't begin to imagine. Stop by stop, the perceptive young narrator tells her journey in poems, leaving behind the cotton fields and distant Blue Ridge mountains.

Each leg of the trip brings new revelations as scenes out the window of folks working in fields give way to the Delaware River, the curtain that separates the colored car is removed, and glimpses of the freedom and opportunity the family hopes to find come into view. As they travel, Ruth Ellen reads from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, reflecting on how her journey mirrors her own-- until finally the train arrives at its last stop, New York's Penn Station, and the family heads out into a night filled with bright lights, glimmering stars, and new possiblity.

James Ransome's mixed-media illustrations are full of bold color and texture, bringing Ruth Ellen's journey to life, from sprawling cotton fields to cramped train cars, the wary glances of other passengers and the dark forest through which Frederick Douglass traveled towards freedom. Overground Railroad is, as Lesa notes, a story of people who were running from and running to at the same time, and it's a story that will stay with readers long after the final pages.

A New York Public Library Best Book of the Year

A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year

A Junior Library Guild Selection

A Booklist Editor's Choice

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review
Ransome's watercolor-and-collage illustrations effectively capture both the historical setting and the trepidation of a family who though not enslaved, nevertheless must escape as if they were. Cotton bolls throughout the images accentuate cotton's economic dominance in the sharecropping system. A beautiful portrayal of a historic and arduous family journey northward.

Horn Book Magazine

Ruth Ellen is reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass on the train, and Cline-Ransome generalizes the details of Douglass's own escape to emphasize the similarities in the two situations . . . Ransome does an admirable job of setting mood as well as establishing time and place.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review

Warm portraiture and vivid writing by married collaborators Cline-Ransome and Ransome (Before She Was Harriet) mark this story of a family's journey north during the Great Migration. Ruthie narrates; she and her Mama and Daddy are leaving the fields of North Carolina for New York City aboard the Silver Meteor: "No more working someone else's land," Mama says. When the train crosses from the segregated South into the North, porters tell "everyone in the colored section/ to sit where they want." Some white passengers put their hands over empty seats, but the three find "smiles/ from new neighbors." Ransome renders the scenes realistically in bold colors, strong lines, and delicate collage-like patterns. He moves in close to capture Ruthie's serious gaze and her parents' gentle exchange. Ruthie's teacher has given her a copy of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Ruthie is quick to perceive the parallels: "a boy/ leaving behind what he knew/ and heading to what he don't/ just like me." The journey is seen through the eyes of richly developed characters drawn with care and sympathy. Ages 4-8. (Jan.)

Copyright 2019 Publishers Weekly, LLC Used with permission.

School Library Journal

K-Gr 2--Cline-Ransome and Ransome apply their considerable talents to this timely story about migration and a hope for a better life. At the crack of dawn, Ruth Ellen and her father and mother board the New York-bound Silver Meteor, the first train out of North Carolina that day. They board in secret, having already said their goodbyes to the family members who will stay behind. As they travel, Ruth Ellen reads aloud from her book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a parting gift from her teacher. Finally, as night falls, they arrive at Penn Station and Ruth Ellen steps off the train into the city that is their new home while the bright lights of the city shine like stars. Ransome's beautiful illustrations feature detailed and expressive faces and layers of bright patterned paper that add colorful accents to the muted palette. The faces of the white passengers are all cut from a single shade of white paper while the black passengers skin tones vary, reflecting the diversity of the participants of the Great Migration. The inclusion of information about Frederick Douglass's journey in the story helps show that even though Ruth Ellen's journey north is more comfortable in comparison, she and her family still experience the same uncertainty and apprehension on their trip. Ruth Ellen's narration brings an immediacy to the trip, her thoughts often interrupted by the train conductor's shouts of, "Next Stop..." as they move along. An author's note gives readers historical context, placing the story in the era of the Great Migration, inspired by just one story of the many who were, "running from and running to at the same time." VERDICT An excellent and highly recommended first purchase.--Laken Hottle, Providence Community Library

Copyright 2020 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

Review quotes

★ Cline-Ransome's carefully cadenced ragged-right prose, suitable for reading aloud or reading alone, offers sharply observed details . . . . James Ransome's line, watercolor, and collage scenes move fluidly from epic landscape scenes, often dotted with the deceptively beautiful cotton, to eloquent facial portraiture; the movement of the gleaming train through the landscapes is paralleled occasionally by glimpses of a young Frederick Douglass heading North on foot. There's something about the Great Migration that brings out talent—The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Starred Review

A tour de force from a writer/illustrator duo that is a national treasure.— The Historical Novel Society

Through handsome collage, pencil and watercolor illustrations and lyrical free verse, the family's hopeful journey to find better jobs, homes and rights shows readers a major moment in the large scope of African American history. . . . Young readers will likely be drawn in by the author's riff on a familiar phrase in the title, as well as the spare but poetic language in which Ruthie narrates her long day's journeyShelf Awareness
Lesa Cline-Ransome
Lesa Cline-Ransome and James Ransome have collaborated on many award-winning picture books for children. These include Before She was Harriet, a Coretta Scott King honor book; Benny Goodman & Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the first Black-and-White Jazz Band in History; Satchel Paige, which was an ALA Best Book for Children and Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass, which received starred reviews in Booklist and School Library Journal. They live in the Hudson River Valley region of New York.
Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Holiday House
Publication date
January 20, 2020
BISAC categories
JUV011010 - Juvenile Fiction | People & Places | United States - African-American
JUV057000 - Juvenile Fiction | Stories in Verse (see also Poetry)
JUV016150 - Juvenile Fiction | Historical | United States - 20th Century
JUV041050 - Juvenile Fiction | Transportation | Railroads & Trains
Library of Congress categories
African Americans
Railroad travel
New York Public Library
Best Book of the Year
School Library Journal
Best Book of the Year
Junior Library Guild
Editor's Choice

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