Hidden History in the Spotlight: The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls

Lee & Low, 2020

The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls

Written by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by Duane Smith

Lee & Low Publishing, February, 2020 (ISBN-13: 978-1643790169)

Series: The Story of…  Target ages 8-11, grades 3-6

Would you watch a movie about an enslaved man whose intelligence, ambition, skills, and daring choices affected the Civil War? Would you root for a hero who rescued his own and other enslaved families, leading them to freedom in the North? Are you curious about an enslaved man who delivered valuable  weapons into the hands of the Union, right under the noses (and cannons) of guards at a Confederate fort? Would you want to know more about the childhood that shaped him, the heart-stopping events of that night,  and the results of his heroic efforts in his later years?

I would.

I’ve noticed social media buzz indicating that there are people with the means to  produce such a movie have heard about Smalls and are considering a feature about this hero, Robert Smalls.

No worries or frustration, though, about having to wait.

Author Janet Halfmann first wrote about this impressive unsung hero in her picture book, SEVEN MILES TO FREEDOM: The ROBERT SMALLS STORY.  At that time very few in the general public knew his name or accomplishments. Published by Lee & Low in 20o8, and illustrated by Duane Smith, that book was my introduction to Robert Smalls. Halfmann’s dramatic writing swept me along on his remarkable journey to freedom, and back matter revealed the intensity and authenticity of Halfmann’s research that enriched the telling with accuracy and detail.

The same publisher and creative team (Halfmann/Smith) have now released a new book about Robert Smalls. This chapter book format provides expanded details in the biographic narrative and extended historic context in each chapter’s supplementary pages. This title is a recent addition to the powerful Lee & Low series “The Story of…” .

I haven’t read other titles in this series, but in this case Halfmann has written both narrative and background segments with equal mastery. The life story of Robert Smalls remains little-known to many and deserves this awe-inspiring spotlight while the related historical references make Small’s accomplishments all the more impressive.

Born enslaved, Smalls grew up within the comparatively “safe” status of a “favored” house servant, viewed fondly by his master/owner. But Robert was observant, noting the vicious abuse of slaves on nearby plantations and recognizing his own vulnerable standing within society. He witnessed the sale of other black people on the auction block in nearby Charleston, appalled by their separation from family and inability to control their own futures. He viewed other humans as they were reduced to pieces of property with no legal rights. Those observations made him yearn for freedom from his earliest age, propelling him to work toward that goal every day in every possible way.

The first chapter reveals this and more about an ambitious and astute young man who seeks a life of dignity and freedom, despite the steep odds against him.  Readers will cheer for his courage and energy and intentions, for his resilience and hard work. Each chapter advances his life story through continuing  challenges that take your breath away and tug at your heart.

Each dramatic narrative in a chapter is followed by a few pages of background and explanatory text, providing related historic facts and context. Those sections appear on gray-tone pages and use expository text patterns, but are equally accessible to readers with engaging language and structure. Each of these parallel chapter sections, the personal narrative and the background material, is strengthened by its relevance to the other.

Some of the recent and historic figures featured in THE STORY OF… series are prominently known, while others, like SMALLS,  are less familiar to the general public. The series targets readers in grades three-to-six, but I, as an adult, found it to be informative and appealing. Well-written and compelling stories of people who lived powerful lives always are.

The structure of this book intersperses dramatic narrative chapters with riveting spot illustrations, followed by a short text section that is purely historic, incorporating archival images and details. The deep research used in both sections is documented in back matter sources, where nonfiction text conventions include a timeline, a section providing related resources (divided by topic), a glossary of terms, and another example of an enslaved person who risked her life to escape to freedom by hiding in a linen chest. The section of recommended related books is also sorted by topics. This will be of special interest to those who are eager to learn more of the hidden history of enslaved Americans who took enormous risks to reach freedom and support others.

Lee & Low, 2018

I believe you’ll want to recommend the original picture book and this recent chapter book/biography after reading. That could also lead you to another of Halfmann’s award-winning picture book biographies about a figure from hidden history. MIDNIGHT TEACHER: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School will inform and astound you. The brave choices of this enslaved woman and her devotion to literacy in the face of threatening laws and oppressive social conventions deserves your attention all year long, but shines especially brightly during March, Women’s History Month.

When you take a closer look at any of these, and I’m counting on you to check them out, I’d love to read your reactions in the comments.


Wisdom Shared: Anne Lamotte’s TED Talk

It’s been quite a while since I posted thoughts here. I hope your new year has been busy pursuing success, happiness, and big plans for the months ahead. I could waste your time by listing the many ways my busy-ness has kept me away from these posts, but I won’t.

I do plan to share some of those in coming weeks, but for now, I want to share a favorite TED TALK link by ANNE LAMOTT. I’ve viewed it in the past, but when it crossed my social media path again today, it fell into place in my heart as if for the first time.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the same might be true for any readers here. If you, like me, are familiar with this writer’s remarkable work, I suggest you take the 10 minutes or so to watch the program anyway.Maybe it is exactly what your heart needs today. If you are not familiar with Anne and her work, PLEASE do watch.

One of the many ways in which having work published has surprised and honored me is when my own words are quoted back to me as having special resonance with the reader. I suspect Anne has had that experience more often than nearly any other writer, because her words often appear third-, fourth-, fiftieth-hand among those of us who find our true selves on words.

In this particular TedTalk, just A FEW of her memorable lines include:

The mystery of grace is that God loves Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin and me exactly as much as He or She loves your new grandchild. Go figure. –Anne Lamott

I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us. –Anne Lamott

While fixing and saving and trying to rescue is futile, radical self-care is quantum, and it radiates out from you into the atmosphere like a little fresh air. It’s a huge gift to the world. — Anne Lamott

Go outside. Look up. Secret of life.  –Anne Lamott

I could go on, and if we were sitting here together I would. But I prefer to send you off to sit with Anne in her own words.
So many amazing words. All of them from and to the heart.

Go now. The link is above, but here it is again.

In case you want to share any of her lines, here’s a link to the full text, too.

And have a wonderful life.


God Jul! An Outtake Offering



Soon after ODIN’S PROMISE released, readers offered the kindest gift of all- a continuing interest in Mari and her family as the occupation of Norway continued. I had never intended to write a sequel, but I swallowed hard and dug into research, then writing. As I wrote about the ensuing four-plus years of war and occupation, I realized I needed to write those developments in two volumes.

The segment shared today was from my original attempt at a single volume. I share it in the sprit of the holidays, with a follow-up comment afterwards. I hope you’ll enjoy it.


In this early plot line Mari traveled alone to Oslo instead of to Bergen, as she did in MARI’S HOPE. She stayed with her sister Lise for medical training during a period when schools were closed in 1942. This passage takes place as she is preparing to return to Ytre Arna.

Palace Park, Oslo, Norway

During a quick breakfast Mari convinced Lise to send the remaining garments home unfinished. Enough of the secondhand clothing would fit for spring and she intended to master the sewing machine when she returned to save Mama and Bestemor the trouble the othersof making alterations.

She craved more time with her sister, so they spent much of the day on a final tour of Oslo, ending up at the park. The surprising shift in weather brought little wind that day and the sun penetrated layers of wool clothing.

Mari loosened the scarf around her head and dropped it to her shoulders. “The best weather of the winter arrived just in time to see me off.”

Lise tilted her face to the sun’s warmth and breathed deeply. “It’s always colder here than on the coast, but this winter has been brutal.” She wrapped an arm around her sister’s waist and leaned her head on Mari’s shoulder. “Just remember that the worst winter is always followed by spring, even when you can’t feel it coming. It’s inevitable, and we must not give up hope.”

They sat silently for several minutes. Mari clung to Lise, wishing she could stay. She had come to rely on her sister’s advice, her medical training, and the solace of uninterrupted hours to escape into academics.

On the other hand it felt more like a year than a month since she’d seen Bestemor, Mama, and Papa. Despite the elaborate network of underground messages, very little could be learned about individuals and families. Her dread at the thought of returning to school was the opposite of her feelings before the invasion. Now she feared pressure to join the girls’ youth group. The resistance newspapers reported that Quisling was ignoring the refusals of parents across the country and had dropped his demands, but Mari was feeling desperate to hear that from Mama and Papa.

The sound of boots approaching interrupted her thoughts.

“Guten Tag,Fräu Olmsted.You have no work today?”

A German officer stood before them, blocking the sun, and addressed Lise. Mari squinted up at him and then dropped her eyes without speaking.

“Hilsen, Doctor Braun. My sister returns home tonight so I arranged my schedule to be free today.” Lise stood to speak to him, but barely reached his shoulder so she was staring up into the sun.

“Wunderbar! I have a free afternoon as well. May I treat you both to a farewell dinner?” He offered his arm to Lise and extended his hand to Mari.

Mari struggled to hold still, fighting the impulse to bolt. She didn’t dare lift her eyes. Even a glimpse of his uniform might trigger an attempt to escape.

Nie, takk, Doctor Braun. I’m afraid we’ve wasted most of the day enjoying the weather and have very little time to finish packing.” Lise bent over to collect her bag and tugged at Mari’s elbow.  Mari’s impulse to run was suddenly replaced by a desperate need to remain frozen on the bench, as immovable as one of the many sculptures in the park.

“Surely you have enough time for a bit of sweets? Come along to the hotel dining room and I’ll have them pack a little box of treats for your journey.” Mari felt his hand on her elbow and clamped her jaw tight to prevent herself from shouting NEI.

Lise squeezed her other arm and urged Mari to her feet. “It’s a very kind offer, Herr Doctor, and it is on our way home. If you insist, we’ll stop with you for just a few minutes.”

The shock of Lise’s words left Mari half stumbling along, her sister’s arm linked through hers and the doctor’s hand holding the other. Her mind raced, searching for possible reasons why Lise would agree. It wasn’t until they reached the end of the block and stepped through the lobby entrance that she realized they were now two Norwegian girls walking through Oslo at the side of  a German officer. It was all she could do not to wretch on the royal blue carpet.

She felt herself being guided to a small glass table where the officer pulled out two chairs. “I’ll only be a moment, I promise.” By the time she dared to look up he was out of sight.

Mari leaned toward Lise to demand an explanation but her sister squeezed her hand, smiled brightly, and whispered, “Not now. At home.” Lise sat back in her chair and seemed to be examining every inch of the hotel.

Mari concentrated on breathing normally and glanced around. She felt like an injured elk surrounded by a pack of timber wolves. Soldiers and officers hustled in and out of the elevators, seldom pausing for conversations. To her relief, none seemed to even notice them.

Sooner than she expected, the doctor returned. He placed a small bakery box on the table. “It’s only some sandwiches and sweets, but you said you were in a hurry. I hope you’ll have a safe and easy journey home, young one.”

Her sister stood and Mari quickly did the same. Lise picked up the box and shook the doctor’s hand. “Danke, Doctor Braun. It is one less task to tend to before time to go.”

He nodded his head and smiled. Without the sun glaring behind him Mari saw that he was considerably older, perhaps Papa’s age, and his eyes looked surprisingly kind.

“We appreciate your generosity, don’t we, Mari?”

Ja, takk,” she managed to say, ignoring his extended hand. She pushed in her chair and turned toward the doors.

“It’s nothing, but I hope you’ll find it helpful.” He followed them across the lobby and tipped his hat as they left. “Auf Wiederhesen.”

As soon as they were out of sight of the hotel, Mari demanded, “What were you thinking?”

Her sister’s expression warned her to wait until they reached the relative safety of her apartment.

* * *

While Lise did the supper dishes Mari took one last survey of the bedroom, making sure she wasn’t leaving anything behind. It was a struggle to focus on anything after her sister explained the decision to join Dr. Braun. Details were few, but Dr. Braun had gone out of his way to help Lise several times since he arrived at the hospital in the fall. He was one of the few German staff who knew about the deserted office space where Mari studied at the hospital. He had even obtained a visitor’s identification card for her in case someone questioned why she was there. He had proudly shown Lise pictures of his two daughters, close in age to Mari. He missed them terribly. Lise believed he was a genuinely kind man and had observed him treating all patients with equal skill and medications, whether they were Germans or Norwegians or even prisoners from the resistance.

That did little to remove Mari’s objections to being seen with him, to accepting his gifts. She wondered what might be demanded of Lise in return for such generosity.

When they opened the box at her apartment they found two sandwiches with ham, cheese, and real butter along with four small of cakes. Tucked in the side of the box were a dozen or more extra ration tickets for meat and vegetables. They divided the food and Mari insisted that Lise keep the ration tickets. She was on her own in the city now and had no canned garden foods tucked away in a basement cold storage room as Mari did at home.

Lise stepped in the bedroom. “All set? Leif could be here any minute. You don’t plan to sit around and visit, do you?”

Mari moved to the living room and made a half-hearted attempt to look around the tables and shelves for anything of hers. “Not at all. I just want to get this trip over with as soon as possible and get back home.”

Lise followed her and tapped her on the shoulder. When she turned Lise handed her a science lab notebook. Lise exaggerated a scolding expression but slipped into a grin despite herself. “I thought you checked the bedroom? Are you giving up science studies?”

Mari took the workbook and tucked it into her backpack. “I just can’t seem to think straight. How am I going to get through all those hours on the train with Lief?” She took a moment to rearrange the items in her pack to cover the secret lining holding messages and other documents.

“You might change your mind and take the sleeping powders once you are on the train. You still have them, don’t you?”

Mari’s hand slipped into her pocket and she patted a slim envelope. “Yes, but I won’t use that approach unless my nerves get the better of me. I can’t take a chance on being muddy-headed around him. It would be awful to sleep so deeply he could go though my bags.”

She tugged the two overloaded cases to the door then walked to the window. “Where is he? It will be dark soon. I really don’t want to be out on the street with him past curfew.”

Mari felt her sister’s arm around her shoulder and leaned into her. She fought back tears and whispered, “Tusen takk for everything. I’ll miss you so much. When will I see you again?”

“I’ll be going to _(research Erik’s suitable town)__more often now to see Erik, so I won’t get back to Ytre Arna. Perhaps at the holidays again, but only if my schedule permits.”

Lise stepped back and brushed a tear from Mari’s cheek. “You’ll be spending much more time with Doctor Olsen when you return, and you can ask him anything. Even if Mama, Papa, and Bestemor are busy or tired, they want you to tell them when you need help or have questions.”

Lise stepped back further and looked Mari over from head to toe, then gazed directly into her eyes. “You’re just a young girl, Mari, barely a teenager. This invasion and occupation have pushed you into chores and worries and secrets only an adult should have to carry. You may look and feel older than you are, but you are always our little one.”

I share this passage today as a reminder to us all. Every person is an individual, and no matter how justified we may feel in judging their choices and actions, we can never know what is in their heart. We’ve been living through times of suspicion, anger, and fear. perhaps more so than at any other times in our lives (at least for those who are young). Stress and worry makes us miserable. Lise mentions above: Even when it feels impossible, Spring always follows Winter. As I often write when signing books: 

May you know the love, laughter and strength of family,

in 2020 and always.

Holiday Hopes and Happiness to All!

I sent out my winter newsletter earlier this week. If you aren’t a subscriber, you missed some recaps of the past year and comments about current projects. (It’s a busy season, so no worries.) In it I included a brief outtake from the last book in the trilogy, a passage related to the Jul season. At this stage, years into the German occupation, Norway’s circumstances were leaner and more challenging than ever, and yet Mari and her family and so many others held firmly to their hopes for the future, for a better life ahead.

I decided to share this snippet that couldn’t squeeze into the final word count for MARI’S HOPE. If you find yourself able to celebrate the holidays with an abundance of blessings, good for you. If you find yourself longing for better days, olden days, absent loved ones, or in any way feeling less than joyous, please hold on to hope. Draw on the strength of love, laughter, and family, past or present.


During her months in Bergen, Mari had managed, with a little help from Rolf, to barter several older items and a few keepsakes for one fine silk blouse. As the Jul season approached, she began working on her plan.

The weeks leading up to Jul night were stressful and exhausting as the outbreak of unexplained disease spread through Ytre Arna. Each night she collapsed on Bestemor’s sofa, but struggled to relax. Once the others were asleep, she used that perfect opportunity to work on her secret project.

With careful  planning, that precious blouse yielded enough fabric for a dozen small handkerchiefs. 

Mari pulled silk threads from the blouse remnants to hem the handkerchief edges. Then, all along the borders, she used single strands of red embroidery floss to repeat this pattern: 

.- .-.. – / ..-. — .-. / -. — .-. –. .

While in Bergen, Mari had studied International Morse Code, again with Rolf’s help. Her pattern repeated Norway’s national slogan, ALT FOR NORGE, “All for Norway”. Once she was satisfied that her message was in place, Mari added leaves and vines with green floss threads. If those red threads were pointed out to someone who knew Morse Code, the message  could be read easily. Otherwise, it that code was safely nestled into the border of a holiday hanky. 

The design was not at all traditional, but it was expertly stitched, thanks to Mari’s scrupulous training with a needle and thread from Mama, Bestemor, and Doctor Olsen.

The weather resumed its mild patterns and Mari crisscrossed the mountainside, checking on patients and watching for signs of new illness or outbreaks. If nothing developed, school could reopen after the first of the year. She applied the bartering lessons she had developed during the first year of occupation. People she visited (and trusted) were thrilled to learn the code and were eager to carry a silent symbol of protest. Her clever trading and the affection felt for her by the villagers allowed Mari to acquire Jul gifts for everyone on her list. 

May your holiday season and the year ahead be filled with good health, agreeable weather, and finding ways to calm and center yourself. May your thoughts and energy often turn to others and their needs. 

And may you hold tight to your values and identity, surrounding yourself with people you can trust.

More “Lost Darlings” from Early Efforts

It’s been fun to hear from folks who enjoyed reading  my prior post of “outtakes” from early efforts at my Norway trilogy. I dug into some of the other “rescued” chapters from various versions and found another to share. The characters from my prior post have undergone multiple rewrites before reaching this stage, and this next passage shows a bit of my growth in learning how to include information within the context of the story rather than as a “pull-back” or “information dump”. It’s still not publication-ready, but I can recognize my own progress as I read back from a several years later.

We last left our main characters in Sonia’s kitchen. Here’s a revised approach. It’s from early chapters in an improved version two years later:

That night Nils hurried back to his family with his good news.

His older sister Lise wouldn’t learn about the upcoming wedding plans until her next visit, and no one could guess when that would be.  She worked as a housekeeper for several German occupation families in Bergen.

Lise’s husband captained a fishing boat that had escaped to England with other ships when the invasion began. She and her family feared for his safety as he supported the resistance in the North Sea, but she had to find a way to support herself and their daughter. It eased her mind only slightly to realize that the occasional tidbits of information she could gather in the German households might help the war effort in some small way.

Anika was safer by far living with her aunt and uncles in Ytre Arna, but she missed her mother and father terribly. Lise’s youngest sister, Kristia, was only seventeen, but together with her brothers they provided love and security for their niece Anika, helping her to weather these dark days without her parents.

When Nils announced the unexpected news of a wedding, the room erupted with enthusiastic congratulations, questions, and hugs. As the chatter subsided, Kristia said, “Anika, it’s past your bedtime, even if it is Saturday. Come along now.”

“Not yet, Tante Kristia…” Anika pleaded.

“Hurry now, and we’ll still have time for a story or two before the lights are turned out,” Kristia said, taking Anika by the hand and leading her down the hall.

Anika squirmed away and ran back to Nils, squeezing him around the waist and pressing her face and braids into his stomach. “Onkel Nils, will there be an almond  wreath cake? Will it have flags?” she asked.

Nils tucked his hand under her chin, tilting her head back to look into her hopeful blue eyes. “We’ll see, little one, we’ll see. We don’t have to decide tonight, do we?”

Before long Anika and the others had settled in for the night. But sleep eluded Nils, who spent several hours asking himself Anika’s questions.  

And many, many others.

  • * *

The next morning, Nils spoke with Sonja again on their way to church. “I’ve been thinking about our wedding plans,” Nils said, smiling.

“You’re not getting cold feet, are you?” she asked with a grin.

“Not at all… in fact, I’ve been hatching a rather daring idea.”

“Tell me, quickly. “ She leaned in closer and whispered, “I hope you’re not thinking of taking off for the mountains again!”

“We’ll talk after services,” he said, as they climbed the gravel road rising through the village center to the white timber church. All Sonja could do was frown and gently jab him in the ribs with her elbow.

Later that day, while they hiked deeper and deeper into the forest on a rugged mountain path above the town, she insisted on an explanation. “How much farther do we need to go, silly? Are we hunting for trolls to attack the Germans? A wedding is not such a secret as you are making it out to be, and I can’t wait another minute!”

Nils smiled, sensing he had stalled long enough. “Your mama gave me the idea yesterday. I checked the calendar last night. We could schedule our wedding day for May 17!  Syttende Mai falls on a Saturday next spring, and we could invite the whole town!”

Sonja’s expression quickly shifted from annoyance to surprise to excitement as Nils continued.

“If the Germans are allowing traditional dress and songs at weddings, we could use our celebration to give our district their Constitution Day!” He had spoken softly, but his eyes were bright and he smiled hopefully at Sonja. “But would you mind sharing your wedding day with our country’s holiday?”

“Of course not,” she laughed. “At least you’d have no excuse for forgetting our anniversary, even when we’re both old and senile! Do you really think it would work? How could we get enough food? Where would we hold the celebration? When would…?”

“Nils put his index finger to her lips and smiled. “Those are just a few of the questions I have, too, but we’ll find the answers to them somehow. I know we can, if we work together. Should we do it?”

“Absolutely!” she responded with a hug. “Let’s go tell my family!”

“You mean your mama, the resistance leader?” he laughed as they turned back toward town.

I hope you’ll enjoy imagining this version. It more closely reflects the facts of the story I heard about involving an  Ytre Arna  “resistance wedding” on my first visit to Norway, many years after the war had ended.

My end-of-year-holiday newsletter will be ready in a week or so and will include a short holiday excerpt that was cut from the final book in the trilogy. If you haven’t already signed up to receive the newsletter, it’s easy to do>>> in that right column, over there. My newsletters aren’t long, so if you care to get updates a couple of times a year, sign up to have it drop into your inbox.

Tusen takk!