This classic from my childhood discusses the importance of allies on the road to freedom. Abolitionists helped fearless slaves free themselves from oppression. Peg Leg Joe, the abolitionist featured in this story, may or may not have been a real person but the Underground Railroad was definitely real.
In Follow the Drinking Gourd, Peg Leg Joe works at cotton plantations with the sole purpose of teaching slaves his song, Follow the Drinking Gourd, which tells them how to get to freedom. One day, Molly’s husband James is sold to another master and they have only one more night together. Slaves often had their families suddenly torn apart in this way. But that night they hear a quail’s song, the first clue from the song to get moving towards freedom. They decide to make an escape.
The family follows the Drinking Gourd (Big Dipper), remembering the lines of Peg Leg Joe’s song for guidance. They hide from hounds and look for signs that they’re heading in the right direction; North. They get help from farmers and finally meet up with Peg Leg Joe who takes them across the Ohio River to their next stop, the house of a white family. They keep moving from house to house and take time to rest and heal and even stay at the place of a free black man. The family finally makes it to Canada, to freedom.
This has always been one of my favorite books about slavery because it presents it in a clear, easy to understand way. Children who have no understanding of slavery will need some explanation as to why the family wants to escape. There are no happy slaves here; we see the family’s hesitation, worry, fear and finally joy and relief. Jeanette Winter’s illustrations are extremely moving; especially the one with James on the auction block, head down and distraught, “Negroes for Sale” below him. I read this book quite often when I was young, so much so that the images are still very familiar to me. Be sure to check it out and discuss! The complete song is included on the last page.
Recommended for: 1st grade and up
Great for: Slavery, Underground Railroad, African American, Injustice, Inner Strength, Fearlessness, Determination, Family, Relationships, Allies, Abolitionism, Astronomy, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, Non-Fiction, Discussion
Book Info: Follow the Drinking Gourd by Jeanette Winter, 1992 Dragonfly Books (Random House), ISBN: 9780679819974