Kite to Freedom: The Story of a Kite-Flying Contest, the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge, and the Underground Railroad

Cross Your Fingers. Mar. 2021. 102p. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781942483717; pap. $12.95. ISBN 9781942483700.
Gr 3-7–“Something great can come from something small”: Those are the last words and the explicitly stated theme of this short, fictionalized account of true events. Told over 10 chapters, this title tells the unique story of a suspension bridge built over the Niagara Falls gorge in the mid 1800s and its connection to the Underground Railroad. Eleven-year-old Katie is a Black girl whose grandparents were brought North and freed by a white man. From Katie’s story, the narrative strangely shifts to a conversation between Charles B. Stuart, proprietor of Canada’s Great Western Railway, and engineers who want to help him create a suspension bridge to connect the United States and Canada. The story moves back to Katie and her friend, a white boy named Homan, who get caught up in the excitement of a kite-flying contest to span the gorge and get the suspension bridge started. The story stretches reality when the children are stranded on the Canada side for eight days during a snowstorm but then return to the United States side to find their kite—and immediately win the contest. This success allows construction of the bridge to get underway, and Katie and Homan are subsequently invited to be a part of one of the first basket rides across the gorge. The end of the story brings in the Underground Railroad when Katie connects a woman she saw escaping in a boat with the concept of slavery. In the last chapter, Katie ages from 11 to 18 and then back to 16, as Dinan tries to fit the history of the Fugitive Slave Act, Harriet Tubman, and the new train suspension bridge into her all-encompassing narrative. Kirkwood’s black-and-white illustrations add nice touches to each chapter, providing an eye-on-the-ground perspective of the enormity of the bridge.
VERDICT While informative and ambitious, this awkward narrative bites off more than it can chew. One could imagine factual components in sidebars so that the narrative alone doesn’t have to carry the weight of this interesting slice of history.

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