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Readers Reflect: One Girl’s Conscience

February 21, 2010

“Readers Reflect,” is a weekly post by a guest blogger reflecting on a formative book, character, or reading experience that has been particularly meaningful in their life as a reader. To submit your own “Readers Reflect” essay, please contact us at

I will never forget how proud my mother sounded. “Why, Jessica, you read that book all by yourself?”

I was six years old and the book was a biographical picture book of Harriet Tubman, an escaped African American slave who returned to the South to help over seventy slaves escape to freedom. I was absolutely captivated by the phrase, “the Underground Railroad,” and I imagined a literal railroad carved out of rock and dirt, with poor, tattered slaves creeping along in the dark, only a candle to light their way.

Not only did reading that book represent a pivotal turning point in my life as a reader, but it helped shape my political and social consciousness in the years to come.

The first novel I wrote as an 11-year-old was the story of a young woman trying to help a slave escape on the Underground Railroad. My first published novel, The Confessional (Knopf), deals with racial tension along the U.S.-Mexico Border. As an adult, I’ve spent years of my life in graduate school, studying African history, and I am currently working on a memoir/nonfiction book about South Africans obsessed with healing the wounds of apartheid.

Justice for people of color worldwide has been one of my abiding political concerns. While I’m sure many things have shaped my conscience, a large share of the credit can be placed at the foot of that biography of Harriet Tubman.

Jessica Powers is a writer and prodigious reader. She is good friends with Courtney’s parents. Her blog can be read at

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