Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer is a thrilling historical adventure that transports readers to the antebellum South; Frances Schoonmaker masterfully blends fact and fiction in this gripping educational narrative.
The story follows Sid Johnson, a teenage boy who lives on an Illinois farm with his family. When it is reported that there is a “phantom” stealing slaves and transporting them to free states such as Illinois, bounty hunters pay a visit to Sid’s parents, who claim they haven’t seen or heard anything of the sort. Shortly after, however, Sid learns that his parents have been using their farm as a covert stop on the Underground Railroad, a stop which is then burned down by the bounty hunters. As the family travels out west to seek refuge, Sid grapples with the difference between legality and morality, and comes of age as he learns what slavery is truly like. Along the way, the family meets new allies and sinister villains, learning just how dangerous it can sometimes be to do the right thing.

Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer is a fast-paced and engaging read with vivid descriptions and realistic dialogue. Despite the poignant message at the center of the book, Schoonmaker portrays the historical setting and the social issues of the time without being too heavy-handed or preachy. There is a clear theme of morality, but it is situated with nuance in relation to Sid’s journey and built around the complex relationship between morality and legality. Schoonmaker wastes little time hammering the obvious point that “slavery is bad” and, instead, presents a compelling vehicle for young readers to understand the difference between right and wrong in and outside of this historical context. This standout feature sits nicely in relation to another one of the books strengths: Sid’s character arc. Sid is a relatable protagonist who grows and matures throughout the story. He faces many challenges and dilemmas, such as whether to trust his new friends, how to deal with his fears, and how to stand up for what is right as he develops a deeper understanding of the horrors of slavery and the importance of freedom.

The book is full of suspense, action and twists that keep the reader hooked and invested. Schoonmaker balances the darker aspects of the story with moments of humor, warmth, and hope. The book does not shy away from the harsh realities of slavery and racism, but does a wonderful job at showcasing the resilience and courage of the people who fought against them. It is well-written and well-edited, with a clear and consistent voice and style that goes a long way in helping us see Sid’s world through his eyes.

Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer offers a unique and fresh perspective on a familiar and important topic; it is a great choice for fans of historical fiction and parents, teachers or librarians who want to introduce middle schoolers to a rich and diverse literary genre.