Coming August 2019: Gwendolyn Hooks’ Ona Judge Outwits the Washingtons

Ona Judge Outwits the Washingtons: An Enslaved Woman Fights for Freedom, written by Gwendolyn Hooks and illustrated by Simone Agoussoye, tells the story of a young enslaved woman who succeeded in escaping slavery, even though she was fleeing from the first president of the United States of America, George Washington.

Hooks is unflinching in her depiction of slavery, and weaves Ona’s personal story into the larger national story of enslaved blacks in America. Hooks explains that enslaved blacks had to work for no pay in conditions that provided no autonomy or dignity. She also notes that many children were sold away from siblings and parents.

Hooks explores the distinctions between working in the house and in the field through young Ona who hoped to work in the house, like her seamstress mother. At ten-years-old Ona does move into the house, and she begins working with her mother as a seamstress. Ironically, the sewing skills Ona learned from her mother, skills that made her life as an enslaved woman a little easier, also made her particularly valuable to the Washingtons.

Hooks contrasts the radical difference between the newly experienced freedom of white Americans beginning their democratic experiment, and the conditions of enslaved blacks, who were considered property, not citizens.

When George Washington was elected president and set out for then capital, New York City, he brought seven enslaved blacks, including Ona and her brother, Austin. The more centrally located Philadelphia was soon chosen as the new capital of the US. In Philadelphia, Ona met free blacks, and the free black women she saw “proved freedom was possible.”

While Ona was beginning to imagine freedom, George Washington’s wife, Martha, received news that her granddaughter would marry. Martha planned to give Ona as a wedding gift. Horrified, Ona began to plan her escape. With the help of Philadelphia’s free black community, she made it to New Hampshire.

Although Ona continued to work hard, she worked for a wage and was free to make her own decisions. However, the Washington’s continued to look for Ona.

Ona soon met a free black man, Jack Staines, who worked on a ship and traveled often. Jack and Ona fell in love, were married, and had a child.

Even as years passed, Ona remained legally enslaved and was considered property of the Washingtons who continued to attempt to trick her into going back to Philadelphia.

Gwendolyn Hooks narrates Ona Judge’s story matter-of-factly, while purposefully using language to foreground the full humanity of enslaved blacks. The story is an accessible corrective to whitewashed versions of US history. Simone Agoussoye’s illustrations are warm and evocative. Her thoughtful use of color adds emotional depth to the picture book.

This beautiful book is a must-have for personal and school libraries. It can be used during lessons on history, biography, or civics.I recommend it for readers 7 – 10. It is not very text heavy and the vocabulary, although challenging, is appropriate for early learners reading with a teacher or parent.

You will need to wait for this one, according to NetGalley, where I accessed an E-ARC, it will be published August 2019, just in time to make its way into classrooms this coming fall.

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