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Who Was Harriet Tubman? Paperback – Illustrated, September 3, 2019

4.9 out of 5 stars 1,554 ratings

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From the Publisher

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Yona Zeldis McDonough is a longtime doll lover and collector. She is also an award-winning author who has published numerous books for children and adults. She presently lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Who Was Harriet Tubman?
No one knows the exact year in which Harriet Tubman was born. It may have been 1820 or 1821. Most people didn’t think the birth of an enslaved person was worth remembering. Harriet Tubman would grow into a brave and daring young woman. She was brave enough to escape from slavery. She was daring enough to help others escape, too. Because she led so many to freedom, she was called “Moses.” Like Moses in the Bible, Harriet Tubman believed that her people should be free. And she risked her life many times to help them become free. Even after she had escaped safely from the South, she went back to take other slaves north to freedom. Here is her story.
Chapter 1: Life in Maryland
Sometime around 1820 in Maryland, an enslaved woman named Harriet Ross gave birth to a baby girl. Neither Harriet, who was called Old Rit, nor her husband, Ben, could read or write, so they couldn’t record the year of the baby’s birth. No one else thought it was worth doing. But Old Rit loved her tiny child and wanted to protect her. She hoped her little girl, whose nickname was Minty, would learn to sew, cook, or weave. Then she could avoid the backbreaking work picking crops like tobacco, corn, or wheat in the fields.
Old Rit and Ben had been born into slavery. They had many children, all of whom were also enslaved. Ever since 1619, when black people from Africa were kidnapped and brought on slave ships to Virginia, slavery had been a part of American life. By the early 1800s, most of the Northern states had stopped slavery. But the Southern states had not.
Enslaved people like Ben and Old Rit worked very hard, yet they were not paid for their work. Instead, Ben and Old Rit lived on land owned by their enslaver, a man named Mr. Brodas. This land and the many buildings on it was called a plantation.
Mr. Brodas’s plantation house was large and grand, like so many of those in the South. Ben and Old Rit could see the Brodases’ big house every day, but they didn’t live there. They lived in a log cabin, like the other enslaved people on the plantation. These cabins were very small. They had no windows. The floors were made of dirt. Piles of worn-out blankets were the only beds. Still, for little Minty, this was home.
As soon as she could walk, Minty joined her brothers and sisters and other enslaved children who were watched by an older slave. The littlest children weren’t forced to work—yet. There were even times when Minty and the other children could play and have fun. Summers were warm and bright. They swam and fished in the many streams and creeks. 
Unlike many enslaved children, Minty lived with her loving parents. Her father told her stories about the woods. He could name the birds. He knew which berries were sweet and tasty.
Minty’s mother told her stories from the Bible. From her mother, Minty learned about Moses. Moses had lived thousands of years before. He led his people, the Hebrews, out of Egypt, where they had been slaves, and into freedom.
Around 1826, when Minty turned six, her life changed. Mr. Brodas hired her out. This meant that she had to leave her parents and her home. She had to go live and work for white people who could not afford to buy a slave of their own. The day she had to leave, a wagon came to take her away. Minty did not want to go. Her two older sisters had been sent away. She remembered how they cried and cried. But they had to go anyway. So did Minty.
Minty worked for a woman named Mrs. Cook. Mrs. Cook was a weaver. She spent her days in front of a big, noisy loom. Minty helped her wind the yarn. The air was filled with fuzz and lint. It made Minty cough. She couldn’t concentrate. She dropped the yarn. Mrs. Cook got angry. When she was angry, she would punish Minty by whipping her. Enslaved people were often beaten or whipped.
Mrs. Cook told her husband that Minty was stupid and slow. So Mr. Cook had her help him instead. He was trying to catch muskrats. He set out traps by the river. It was Minty’s job to watch them. 
It was cold near the river. One day Minty woke up feeling sick. Mrs. Cook thought she was pretending so she wouldn’t have to work. Just as always, Mr. Cook sent Minty out to check the traps. She went down to the river, shivering from fever. When she got back, Mrs. Cook saw that she was really sick. She sent Minty home to her parents to get well. Old Rit took care of Minty for six weeks. But then it was back to Mrs. Cook and the loom. Minty could not do the job. The Cooks sent her home again.
Next, Mr. Brodas hired Minty out to a woman named Miss Susan. Minty, who was only about seven, had to watch Miss Susan’s baby. If the baby cried, Minty was whipped. At night she sat by the baby’s cradle. She rocked it gently. But Minty was tired. She would fall asleep and the baby would begin to cry. Then Miss Susan would get angry at being woken, and Minty was whipped again. Minty learned to stay alert for the baby, but it was hard. She was always tired.
Once, when Miss Susan’s back was turned, Minty reached for a lump of sugar that was in a bowl on the table. She had never tasted sugar. It looked so good. But Miss Susan saw her. Furious, she reached for  the whip. Minty was too fast. Out the door she flew. She did not stop running until she was sure Miss Susan was no longer chasing her. But now what? If she went back, she would face a whipping.
Minty found a pigpen. She crawled inside to hide. She was very young, but she was bold. She tried to fight the piglets for potato peelings and other scraps of food. But the mother pig pushed Minty away.
After five days, Minty was filthy and starving. She knew she would have to return to Miss Susan. Later Minty would say, “I didn’t have anywhere else to go, even though I knew what was coming.”
Instead of being hired out again, Minty was sent back to Mr. Brodas. Now Minty had to work in the fields, which was very hard. She split logs, loaded wood onto wagons, worked the plow, and drove oxen. When she was out in the fields, Minty could see the sky and feel the wind. The others talked while they worked. That was how Minty began to hear new ideas. She heard people say they wanted to be free. Some of them escaped from the plantation.
They went north, to freedom. Others, like Nat Turner, started rebellions to end slavery. Nat Turner was caught and killed. But his ideas didn’t die. More and more, enslaved people thought about being free. Late one day in 1834, Mr. Brodas’s slaves gathered with those from another plantation to shuck corn. They sang while they worked, peeling the pale green husks from the golden ears of corn. One man stood apart. Minty watched him. He began moving across the big field. At first the overseer—the man who kept the slaves in line—didn’t notice. The slave was halfway across when the overseer saw him. He shouted for him to return. The man kept going.
The overseer followed, holding his big whip. Minty followed, too. The overseer was running now, chasing the man. The runaway ducked into a store. The overseer cornered him in the store, then called to Minty. He wanted her to help him tie up the runaway slave. But Minty didn’t move. She stood watching the two men. Suddenly, the man pushed past the overseer and was out of the store. Gone.
As for Minty, she blocked the doorway, so the overseer couldn’t follow him. The overseer picked up a heavy, two-pound weight and threw it at the runaway. The weight missed him, but it hit Minty on the forehead. She fell, unconscious and bleeding. She was brought to Old Rit, who nursed her tenderly. No one thought Minty would live. Still, Old Rit cared for her daughter night and day. Eventually, Minty recovered from the wound, though it left a scar on her forehead.
It wasn’t just the scar that made Minty different now. People treated her with respect. Although she was only thirteen or fourteen, she had defied an overseer. No longer was she called by her childhood name of Minty. Instead, she was called Harriet, her mother’s name. Clearly, she was not a child anymore.

Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin Workshop; Reprint edition (September 3, 2019)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 112 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 059309722X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0593097229
  • Reading age ‏ : ‎ 8 - 12 years
  • Lexile measure ‏ : ‎ 690L
  • Grade level ‏ : ‎ 3 - 7
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 4.2 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 5.25 x 0.25 x 7.75 inches
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.9 out of 5 stars 1,554 ratings

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Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of seven novels for adults: THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS, IN DAHLIA'S WAKE, BREAKING THE BANK (which has been optioned for a film), A WEDDING IN GREAT NECK, TWO OF A KIND, YOU WERE MEANT FOR ME, and THE HOUSE ON PRIMROSE POND, which came out on February 2, 2016. And for all those New Hampshire natives who happen upon the book, please know that she is fully aware that the state flower is purple lilac, and not lavender, as it states on page 8! How this mistake found its way into the novel is still a mystery, and she apologizes profusely for it!

She is also an award-winning children's book author with 26 children's books to her credit. THE DOLL SHOP DOWNSTAIRS received a starred review from Jewish Book World saying that it "will become a classic." In another starred review Kirkus called the sequel, THE CATS IN THE DOLL SHOP, "a quiet treasure." THE DOLL WITH THE YELLOW STAR won the 2006 Once Upon a World Award presented by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Yona has also written several books in the popular WHO WAS series, including WHO WAS HARRIET TUBMAN? which has sold over 400,000 copies and is the most popular title in the series. Her newest book for children, THE BICYCLE SPY, will be out from Scholastic in September 2016. Set in war-torn France, it tells the story of a brave boy who helps save a Jewish friend by riding his bicycle and delivering messages to Resistance members.

For over a dozen years, Yona has been the Fiction Editor at Lilith Magazine. She works independently to help aspiring writers polish their manuscripts. To arrange a book club visit, inquire about editorial services or just to say hi, please contact Yona via her website: or on the Facebook fan pages for her novels, which she hopes you'll "like."


When I was young, I didn't think about becoming a writer. In fact, I was determined to become a ballerina, because I studied ballet for many years, and by the time I was in high school, I was taking seven ballet classes a week. But I was always a big reader. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and I used to frequent all the different libraries in my neighborhood on a regular basis. I would look for books by authors I loved. I read my favorite books--ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, A LITTLE PRINCESS, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN--over and over again. I probably read each of those books twenty times in all. I read lots of other things too: I loved comic books and magazines, like Mad and Seventeen. But when you are reader, you just need to read. Sometimes you read books that change your life, like OF MICE AND MEN, which I read--and adored-- when I was in sixth grade. Other times, you read the latest adventures of Betty and Veronica. You'll read a three-day old newspaper some days or the back of the cereal box if that's all that there is available, because readers just need to read. So I kept reading, and I kept dancing too, though by the time I was a senior in high school, it was pretty clear to me that I was neither talented nor driven enough to become a professional ballet dancer and I stopped taking lessons and went off to college instead.

As a student at Vassar College, I never once took a writing course. I was not accepted into the poetry workshop I applied to, so I avoided all other writing classes, and instead focused on literature, language and art history, which was my declared major. I was so taken with the field that I decided to pursue my studies on a graduate level. I enrolled in a PhD program at Columbia University where I have to confess that I was miserable. I didn't like the teachers, the students or the classes. I found graduate school the antithesis of undergraduate education; while the latter encouraged experimentation, growth, expansion, the former seemed to demand a kind of narrowing of focus and a rigidity that was simply at odds with my soul. It was like business school without the reward of a well-paying job at the end. Everyone carried a briefcase. I too bought a briefcase, but since I mostly used it to tote my lunch and the NYT crossword puzzle, it didn't do much for my success as a grad student. But I have to thank the program at Columbia for being so very inhospitable, because it helped nudge me out of academia, where I so patently did not belong, and into a different kind of life. I was allowed to take classes in other departments, and by now I was recovered from my earlier rejection so I decided to take a fiction writing class--also, the class was open to anyone; I didn't have to submit work to be accepted. This class was my 'aha!' moment. The light bulb went off for me when I took that class. Suddenly, I understood what I wanted to do with my life. Now I just had to find a way to make a living while I did it.

I finished out the year at Columbia, got a job in which I had no interest whatsoever, and began to look for any kind of freelance writing that I could find. In the beginning, I wrote for very little money or even for free: I wrote for neighborhood newspapers, the alumni magazine of my college. I wrote brochures, book reviews, newsletters--anything and everything that anyone would ask me to write. I did this for a long time and eventually, it worked. I was able to be a little choosier about what I wrote, and for whom I wrote it. And I was able to use my clips to persuade editors to actually assign me articles and stories, instead of my having to write them and hope I could get then published.
But all the while I was also writing the kind of fiction--short stories, a novel--that had interested me when I was still a student at Columbia. And eventually I began to publish this work too.

I presently live in Brooklyn, NY with my husband and our two children and two small, yappy dogs. I have been setting my recent novels in my own backyard so to speak; Brooklyn has been fertile ground in all sorts of ways.

Customer reviews

4.9 out of 5 stars
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Reviewed in the United States on February 7, 2019
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1.0 out of 5 stars Misleading to have kids believe that slavery ...
By Yvonne on February 7, 2019
was fun. Nothing fun about Human Trafficking. Do Better.
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Reviewed in the United States on February 8, 2019
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1.0 out of 5 stars Harriet Tubman was a happy slave
By Mariya Legesse on February 8, 2019
Several passages in this book are deeply concerning and I want to bring this to anyone attention who is considering buying this book.

The message/undertone suggests that being oppressed and enslaved is what you make of it. Even those who were enslaved should learn to feel sorry for their oppressors without any context our guidance on what that means or looks like. It a simplistic, and inadvertently racist, message to send to children. I worry that children (especially Black children) will get the message that being oppressed is what you make of it.

If you are looking for books to target for black history month, I recommend finding books that were written by black authors for a more athunetic and nuanced perspective.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Helpful Historical novel for children
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4.0 out of 5 stars A good introduction to a courageous woman and an important topic for older primary school children
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