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Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson’s Flight from Slavery

Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson’s Flight from Slavery
Algonquin Books for Young Readers
Trade Hardcover, $17.95, 9781616201968
Kindle E-Book, $9.99, B00KNCWLNO
Ages 12 & up/Grades 7 & up, 176 pages
Includes more than 50 period photographs & illustrations
A Junior Library Guild Selection
Download hi-res cover
Read Winifred's essay about writing the book

The page-turning, heart-wrenching true story of one young woman willing to risk her safety and even her life for a chance at freedom in the largest slave escape attempt in American history.

In 1848, Emily Edmonson, thirteen, along with five siblings and seventy other enslaved people, boarded the Pearl in the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., in a bid to reach freedom. Within a day, the schooner was captured, and the six Edmonsons were sent to New Orleans to be sold. Emily and Mary were saved from the even crueler conditions when the threat of yellow fever forced their return to Virginia. They were eventually ransomed with the help of their parents and abolitionists, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, who later used them as models for characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Both girls went to Oberlin College, where Mary died of tuberculosis. Emily graduated and became a teacher at the first school in Washington, D.C., dedicated to the education of African American girls and young women–an idea so controversial that even Frederick Douglass advised against it. Emily also worked on behalf of abolition for the rest of her life.

Passenger on the Pearl illustrates a turbulent time in American history as seen through the daily lives of enslaved people; the often changing laws affecting them; the high cost of a failed attempt to reach liberty; the fate of all fourteen of the Edmonson children and their mother, Milly, whose goal to die a free woman shaped the lives of all her children; and the stories of the slave traders and abolitionists whose lives intersected with the Edmonsons’.


"This title is an in-depth historical narrative concerning several people involved in an attempted slave escape in 1848...Conkling narrates the tumultuous stories of Edmonson, her family, and the others involved, tracing their lives from their ill-fated jail escape to the slave auctions, the Deep South, and finally to freedom. Readers will discover how Edmonson came into contact with important figures in the antislavery movement, including Frederick Douglass, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Primary documents give an authentic voice to the text, including excerpts from Frederick Douglass's autobiography. Nineteenth-century plates, illustrations, photographic portraits, and posters enhance the text. Historical photographs of slaves and slave pens are particularly moving. Maps clearly outline the geography relevant to the narratives, and frequent text blocks separate contextual information from the primary narrative. This work covers information about slavery that is often not found in other volumes...Conkling's work is intricate and detailed, and...this is a strong and well-sourced resource."—School Library Journal

"Clearly written, well-documented, and chock full of maps, sidebars, and reproductions of photographs and engravings, the fascinating volume covers a lot of history in a short space. Conkling uses the tools of a novelist to immerse readers in Emily's experiences. A fine and harrowing true story behind an American classic."—Kirkus Reviews

""Passenger on the Pearl is a great resource for teaching young readers about the tragedy of slavery, as experienced by a girl their own age.&qout;—Historical Novels Review

Click to buy the book:

Sylvia and Aki at Indiebound Sylvia and Aki at Barnes and Noble Sylvia and Aki at Amazon
Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson’s Flight from Slavery

Sylvia & Aki

Sylvia & Aki
Tricycle Press/ Random House Children's Books
Trade Hardcover, $16.99, 9781582463377
Library Binding, $19.99, 9781582463971
Ages 9-12/ Grades 4-6, 160 pages
A Junior Library Guild Selection

Jane Addams Children's Literature Award
2012 Jane Addams Children's Literature Award
for Older Readers

Read more about the award here
Watch my acceptance speech here

Sylvia never expected to be at the center of a landmark legal battle. All she wanted was to enroll in school.

Aki never expected to be relocated to a Japanese internment camp in the Arizona desert. All she wanted was to stay on her family farm and finish the school year.

The two girls certainly never expected to know each other, until their lives intersected in Southern California during a time when their country changed forever.

Here is the remarkable story based on true events of Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, two ordinary girls living in extraordinary times. When Sylvia and her brothers are not allowed to register at the same school Aki attended - instead, they are sent to a "Mexican school" - the stage is set for Sylvia's father to challenge in court the separation of races in California's schools. Ultimately, Mendez vs. Westminster School District led to the desegregation of California schools and helped build the case that would end school segregation nationally.


"Told in alternating chapters from the girls' points of view, this story about institutional racism will enlighten readers to events in recent history. From the court case of Mendez v. Westminster to the conditions at Poston, readers will be moved by this novel based on true events. Back matter include notes about the Mendez and Munemitsu families, essays on internment camps and the end of school segregation, and photos of Sylvia and Aki as children."—School Library Journal

"A well-documented, quietly powerful story."—Kirkus Reviews

Sylvia & Aki is featured in the August 2, 2011 issue of Curriculum Connections: Selective K-12 Resources from School Library Journal in partnership with

Tomas River Mexican American Children's Book Award


  • 2012 Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award
  • CCBC Choices 2012 (Cooperative Children’s Book Center)
  • Américas Award for Children’s & Young Adult Literature,
    2012 Commended Title


Read an interview with Winifred by Cynthia Leitich Smith on her Cynsations blog.

Click to buy the book:

Sylvia and Aki at Indiebound Sylvia and Aki at Barnes and Noble Sylvia and Aki at Amazon

Some photos:

Sylvia as a girl
Sylvia as a girl.
Sylvia's parents
Sylvia's parents.
Aki as a girl
Aki as a girl.
Aki and her parents
Aki and her parents.
Posten Relocation Camp
Poston Relocation Camp.
Posten postcard
Poston Relocation Camp.

Watch a video of my acceptance of the 2012 Jane Addams Children's Literature Award for Older Readers:

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