Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

EconKids Home New Picture Books in 2008 (First Word Q-Z) Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s American Heroes. Robert Smalls: The Boat Thief

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s American Heroes. Robert Smalls: The Boat Thief


  Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s American Heroes. Robert Smalls: the Boat Thief
Author:  Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Illustrator:  Patrick Faricy
Publisher:  Hyperion Books for Children
ISBN:  978-142310802-3
Year:  2008
Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level:  8.6

Concepts:  slavery, discrimination, jobs, human resources, economic history

  As a young slave in Beaufort, South Carolina, Robert Smalls worked in the McKee house with his mother, who regularly reminded him of the harsh conditions she had experienced as a field slave and the brutal treatment of other slaves in Beaufort. These lessons deepened Robert’s hatred of slavery and his longing for freedom.  When Robert was twelve, Henry McKee hired Robert out in Charleston for various jobs, including waiter, lamplighter, and stevedore. Robert’s reputation as a hard worker with excellent technical abilities led to a position sailing a merchant schooner along the Georgia and Carolina coasts.

Over time, Robert married and had two children, but because the legal system required Robert to turn almost all his wages over to McKee, the dream of buying his family’s freedom remained elusive. With the start of the Civil War, Robert found new work as a deckhand, and later pilot, on a large Confederate transport ship named the Planter. Robert ingeniously used this opportunity to strengthen his navigational skills, gain the confidence of the white officers, and learn the assorted coded whistle signals for passing by the check points in Charleston Harbor. With this training intact and family members on board, Robert and his crew commandeered the Planter across the harbor in May of 1862, delivered the ship to the Federal Navy, and celebrated their newfound freedom.

The book’s carefully-written text and stunning illustrations pay tribute to a courageous man who became one of the biggest heroes of the Civil War. The book also emphasizes Robert Smalls’ subsequent work fighting for social justice while serving in the South Carolina state legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives.  Smalls wound up spending most of his life advocating for the end of institutionalized discrimination and the right for blacks to vote, hold office, attend public school, and join the military. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., known for his environmental activism, has made another valuable contribution by putting the inspiring story of Robert Smalls into the spotlight and making it accessible to young readers.

Review by:  Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

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