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By: Jane Petrlik Smolik / Illustrations by: Chad Gowey

“I figure happiness is three things—
someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to.”

Bones Brewster is an eleven-year-old slave on a Virginia plantation. Old Mistress doesn’t make life easy when she discovers that Bones has learned to read. When Bones finds her real name in the owner’s slave registry, she tears it out, places it in a bottle, and sets it afloat on the James River.

The bottle drifts across the Atlantic and finds its way to twelve-year-old Lady Bess Kent. Even as her conniving stepmother pilfers the estate piece by piece, Bess is able to save her mother’s pearl-encrusted cross. She gives it to her friend Harry, sealed in the bottle with Bones’s real name. The bottle is carried back to America and into the hands of Mary Margaret Casey.

Twelve-year-old Mary Margaret loves the bottle’s mystery. And Lady Bess’s heirloom might even save Mary Margaret’s sister’s life. All the while Bones’s name is safe in the bottle until Mary Margaret figures out a way to set it free. Bones, Bess, and Mary Margaret are three young girls from very different worlds whose lives are connected by treasures concealed in a bottle and set adrift on the ocean.

Editorial Reviews:


Bones is a slave girl on a Virginia plantation; Lady Bess is the daughter of the Duke of Kent, living on the Isle of Wight; Mary Margaret is an Irish immigrant residing in Boston. When Bones finds her real name—Agnes May—written in her master’s slave registry, she rips out the page and places it in a bottle that she sets free on the James River. Over the course of two years, this bottle travels back and forth across the Atlantic, linking the three girls together. Each girl’s story is compelling in its own right, but together they weave a tapestry of intelligence, courage, and resourcefulness. Smolik’s writing is beautiful, supported by research (sourced at the back of the book) that gives each girl’s narrative a distinct tone and sense of place. This is a story about the inherent freedom of language and ideas. As such, the concept of lives linked so tenuously rings with authenticity despite the seeming implausibility of the bottle’s journey.

Kirkus Reviews

Three strong-willed girls from dramatically different backgrounds connect through the contents of a bottle when currents carry it back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.

Whipped for learning to read and write, 11-year-old Bones, a slave on a Virginia plantation in 1854, removes the entry with her name, birth date, and slave status from the plantation birth register. She tucks it into a sealed bottle with a small carved heart and tosses it into the James River, determined that part of her will "forever be free." By 1855 the bottle lands on the Isle of Wight, England, where 12-year-old Lady Bess discovers it, removes the heart, and adds her deceased mother's necklace to prevent her mercenary stepmother from stealing it. Eventually, 12-year-old Irish immigrant Mary Margaret retrieves the bottle from Boston's harbor in 1856 and uses Bess' necklace to help her sick sister. Authentic period detail and historic references lend realistic depth to Bones', Bess', and Mary Margaret's engaging individual stories, which, though told separately, are linked by the impact of the traveling bottle on their lives. An illustration of each heroine adds visual context.

A carefully crafted, inspiring 19th-century tale of courage and chance, this novel is a natural for lovers of the past.

Author & Illustrator Bios:

Jane Petrlik Smolik, author

Jane Petrlik Smolik grew up in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. She is the author of In and Out of Portland With Children and The Great State of Maine Activity Book, both published through her own MidRun Press. She now splits her time between her home on Massachusetts's North Shore and her family cottage in Scarborough, Maine. When not researching and writing books, she keeps busy painting, gardening, reading, and spending time with her husband, their family, and Gracie, their Weimaraner.

Read more about Jane.

Awards & Honors:

  • Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year 2016
  • NCSS 2016 Notable Social Studies Trade Books list


ISBN: 978-1-58089-648-1
E-book EPUB
ISBN: 978-1-60734-863-4
For information about purchasing E-books, click here.

Ages: 9-12
Page count: 336
5 12 x 8 14

Correlated to Common Core State Standards:
English Language Arts-Literacy. Reading Literature. Grade 5. Standards 1-6, 10
English Language Arts-Literacy. Reading Literature. Grade 6. Standards 1-6, 10

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