Ray Anthony Shepard is the author of the new children's picture book Runaway: The Daring Escape of Ona Judge. Judge, an enslaved woman, escaped from George and Martha Washington in 1796. Shepard also has written the book Now or Never!. A former history teacher and schoolbook publisher, he lives in Lincoln, Massachusetts.
Q: What inspired you to write a children's picture book about Ona Judge?
A: My goal in writing biographies for young readers 3 to 103 is to give them a new and visceral understanding of how racial injustice keeps us from a perfect Union. I try to do this in a way that engages all readers regardless of racial identity or age by engaging them with my subject’s plight.
The story of Ona Judge, who Martha Washington enslaved for 23 years, is my way to show young readers what Ibram X. Kendi calls “stamped at the beginning.” Runaway is the story of the day Ona decided that having the best job a slave could have was not nearly enough.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: My research was a combination of archival and site visits: reading primary and secondary sources, i.e., George Washington papers and Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life.
And visiting the President House site in Philadelphia, Mount Vernon where Ona was born, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where Ona lived for 52 years after escaping a second time from Washington’s slave hunter.
My research made me realize how brave Ona was to give up the comfort of being a pampered servant in the Washington family for a hardscrabble life as a fugitive slave in white New Hampshire.
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book calls it "A powerful antidote to whitewashed cultural mythology." What do you think of that description?
A: It’s spot on. Think about the layperson's understanding of slavery in American history. The focus is on the exceptional, i.e., Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, because it supports our idea of American exceptionalism. Two-and-a half-centuries of human slavery—no suffering but two heroes. Gees, aren’t we great!
Q: What do you think Keith Mallett's illustrations add to the book?
A: I’m pleased that my publisher selected Keith. His illustrations add to the story's poignancy and pull the readers to identify with Ona and her quest.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My legacy book, my gift to my grandchildren and their generation. It’s the book I needed when I was growing up—a Lyrical Biography of Race in America: From George Washington to Barack Obama.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I am blessed to be able to launch a post-retirement career, writing biographies for young readers.
And I can be reached at www.rayanthonyshepard.com.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb