Jehan Jones-Radgowski is the author of the new children's picture book The Escape of Robert Smalls: A Daring Voyage Out of Slavery. She is a U.S. foreign service officer, and has served all over the world. She currently lives in Moscow.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book about Robert Smalls?
A: I have always been interested in the other narratives of slavery as well as the Civil War. Having grown up in Southern Virginia, I sometimes felt bombarded with different messages.
We celebrated Robert E. Lee Day and had an elementary school named after him (the school has since changed its name, and now students celebrate the official holiday of Presidents’ Day), and Civil War battlefields were scattered around my town, sometimes with filled with tourists.
At the same time, I was fully aware that slavery was terrible, and I believed only a few lucky souls made it out of slavery via the Underground Railroad. I had no idea that black Americans fought on both sides of the Civil War. I had no idea that there were slaves that escaped slavery through very unconventional methods like Robert Smalls.
When Eliza Leahy from Capstone approached me about writing a picture book on Robert Smalls, I jumped at it. I was excited to tell this unknown part of the history of slavery and the Civil War.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: I accessed the Library of Congress archives and found the original newspaper articles and memoirs written on the account. I brushed up on my knowledge of the Civil War and slavery.
I also read a few adult titles, such as Cate Lineberry's Be Free or Die. The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls' Escape from Slavery to Union Hero and James McPherson's The Negro's Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union.
I was surprised to learn that Robert Smalls’ life after the daring voyage continued to be exciting and groundbreaking, as he served as a U.S. congressman and later bought the home of his previous slave master/owner.
Q: What do you think Poppy Kang's illustrations add to the book?
A: Poppy is an amazing illustrator! I love the way she was able to balance the heavy material with a look that children would enjoy. One can feel the suspense and the joy of all the characters. She also gave a personality to the landscapes and the inanimate objects; for example, you can see the fog rolling in and the waves lapping against the ship.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from Smalls's story?
A: I hope this book reminds readers that nothing is impossible. In the history of humanity, there have been people who stood up and said, "No, this is not right, and I am not going to take it." Even when things look bleak, with determination and grit, we can make it.
Q: What are you working on now?
I have two additional books with Capstone coming out in 2020; one is on Booker T. Washington and the other Harriet Tubman.
I have two young adult novels that I am working on. Both were declared finished at some point in the last years, but as I have aged as a writer, I see that they are not. I am also completing a middle grade fantasy as well as a chapter book series for early readers. My goal is to have two finished projects by April 2020.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I moved to Moscow, Russia, with my family in August 2019. I love writing, and it is a passion of mine, but it is, for now, my side occupation. I usually work as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. I am currently studying Russian. I hope the upcoming Russian winter with its long cold nights (plus cups of hot tea) is the spark I need to help meet my writing goals.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb