Seven Miles to Freedom – by Janet Halfmann

Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story, by Janet Halfmann, illus. by Duane Smith (Lee & Low Books, 2008)

(Reviewed by Stephanie Golightly Lowden)

The story of Robert Smalls is most likely not known by many. Born to a house slave in 1839, he would go on to accomplish one of the most daring escapes of the American Civil War. Seven Miles to Freedom is a biography, but because of its picture-book format and striking oil paintings, this book should appeal to all ages. The story of his daring escape had me on the edge of my seat!

Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story, by Janet Halfmann

Robert Small’s story is the story of one man’s dream of freedom and his long journey to accomplish that dream. As a 12-year-old, he was sent away from the plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he was born, to work in Charleston waiting tables.

There, he made five dollars a month—money he then had to hand over to Master McKee. But he spent his off time on the docks, watching the boats go in and out. Master McKee soon gave him permission to work at the docks and, by age fifteen, he was foreman of a crew.

At the young age of 17, he met Hannah Jones, a Charleston hotel maid. They fell in love and received permission to marry. He later made a deal to buy his wife’s and daughter’s freedom for $800, but didn’t know how he would ever save up that much.

Robert had saved $700 by the time the Civil War broke out. He took a job as deckhand on the Planter, a boat that had hauled cotton but now was delivering arms and soldiers for the Confederacy. His knowledge of navigation soon got him promoted to wheelman. In that capacity, he learned the secret steam-whistle signals for passing the many Confederate forts. This knowledge would serve him well when he finally decided to escape.

So as not to give away the ending, suffice it to say, this is a suspenseful biography that reads more like an adventure story. If you are an elementary-grade teacher and you haven’t seen Seven Miles to Freedom, I encourage you to run right out and get a copy for your classroom. For your student who thinks he “hates” biography, this is the perfect antidote.

The name Robert Smalls should be known by everyone. This is a gem of a title, a perfect choice for Black History Month.

Author Janet Halfmann has written more than thirty books for children, including several nonfiction and natural science titles. Researching African American achievements during the Civil War inspired her to write about Robert Smalls, “a person who used his talents to help others and make the world a better place.” Halfmann lives in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her website is .

Illustrator Duane Smith is an artist and art instructor at the Pratt Institute in New York City. His website is

Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story, by Janet Halfmann
Lee & Low Books •  2008
Hardcover & Paperback • 40 pages
Juvenile Nonfiction / Picturebook / Grades 1–6
American Civil War • Slavery • African American History

For teachers, here is a link to a Teacher’s Guide for Seven Miles to Freedom.

There are additional resources and learning activities for Seven Miles to Freedom from OurStory, a website created by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to encourage adults and children in grades K–4 to read historical fiction and biography together.

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Stephanie Lowden is an author of middle-grade historical fiction. Her books include Jingo Fever, a story of prejudice against German-Americans during World War I,  and Time of the Eagle, a tale of two Ojibwe children facing a winter survival trek, fleeing a smallpox epidemic that devastates their village in the 1700s. A member of SCBWI, Ms. Lowden lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Thanks for visiting The Storied Past. Your comments are welcome. And if you see good books or ideas worth sharing, please pass them on to friends, parents, librarians, teachers . . . and best of all, to young readers!

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  1. I’ve read this book and am thrilled to have a signed copy. I’m a native Virginian and grew up in that state. I had never heard of Robert Smalls and didn’t know about his story until I read Janet Halfmann’s excellent book. Thank you for reviewing it.

  2. This is such a remarkably well written story about a man that should be widely known. It’s also an example of why BLACK HISTORY MONTH has value in focusing attention on contributions that have been let out of history books. My worry is that books like these are tucked away on shelves until the following year instead of circulating far and wide all year long. Thanks, Stephanie, for the wonrful review and spotlight. Thanks, too, to author Janet Halfmann for Sharing the story of Robert Smalls with readers of any age.

  3. Stephanie, thanks so much for spotlighting the amazing story of Robert Smalls. And thanks to your readers for the wonderful comments. I was honored to have the opportunity to write this story published by Lee & Low Books.

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