Riding Freedom, by Pam Muñoz Ryan, is a fictionalized account of Charlotte Parkhurst – the little known, but very real, self-made “man.” It is also a rich story, beautifully told.
The plan is elegantly simple. If a girl can’t be as free as a boy in the mid-19th century, then Charlotte would become a boy. To execute the plan, Charlotte became a master of disguise to dodge the obstacles set up by the prevailing social mores. So begins the journey of Charlotte “Charley” Parkhurst, who ultimately became a premiere stage coach driver, ranch owner, and the first woman to vote in the United States.
Even before reading one word of Ryan’s beautiful writing, readers will be drawn in by the striking cover art by Brian Selznick, and there’s more inside! Opening that gorgeous cover leads to rich, layered language that wraps a reader up and holds tight. Ryan’s description of the stable where Charlotte is most at home gives you a hint of what is to come: “The smell of the sweet, dank hay and the horses comforted her like an old quilt on a cold day.”
Students will root for Charlotte as she escapes her orphanage and disguises herself to begin a new life and fulfill her dream of working with horses and owning a ranch. Leaving her only friends behind, Charlotte relies on her ingenuity, courage, and love of horses to find her freedom. Charlotte’s treatment and drive will surely provoke discussions of gender stereotypes in history and today. Both adults and children will feel the oppression Charlotte suffers under 19th-century gender roles, and they will revel in her quiet, clever efforts at upending those rigid roles.
Ryan’s lessons on friendship are more caught than taught, and readers will appreciate the loyalty between Charlotte, her friends left behind, and those who risk their reputations to help her. Lessons on horse handling, the Gold Rush, and Women’s Suffrage are woven throughout the story, sparking intrigue as readers ask themselves, “Did that really happen?” Ryan discusses the historical context fully in her Author’s Note.
Riding Freedom is 138 pages long, making it a great selection for those families just hitching their wagon to reading aloud, and for schools seeking a shorter book that will leave readers wanting to learn more. It is a great introduction to the canon of this prolific writer, and will surely lead readers to seek out some of her other titles, like Read to Them favorite, Esperanza Rising.