Even though Martin Luther King Jr. Day is just around the corner, these books on slavery for kids are appropriate and really should be read throughout the year.
Slavery can be one of those hot topic buttons for families — How do you start the conversation with your children? How do you start educating them about our past and helping them understand the long-term ramifications of slavery on our culture, our society and our citizens?
Today I’m sharing my must-read children’s books on slavery. And when I say children, I don’t just mean tots… I mean your children — no matter their age. So I’m also sharing chapter books worthy of your kid’s time. You can find these books on slavery for kids at your local library or purchase through the affiliate links provided for your convenience.
Must-Read Children’s Books on Slavery
Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad: A stirring, dramatic story of a slave who mails himself to freedom by a Jane Addams Peace Award-winning author and a Coretta Scott King Award-winning artist.
Henry Brown doesn’t know how old he is. Nobody keeps records of slaves’ birthdays. All the time he dreams about freedom, but that dream seems farther away than ever when he is torn from his family and put to work in a warehouse. Henry grows up and marries, but he is again devastated when his family is sold at the slave market. Then one day, as he lifts a crate at the warehouse, he knows exactly what he must do: He will mail himself to the North. After an arduous journey in the crate, Henry finally has a birthday — his first day of freedom.
Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life: Using original slave auction and plantation estate documents, Ashley Bryan offers a moving and powerful picture book that contrasts the monetary value of a slave with the priceless value of life experiences and dreams that a slave owner could never take away. Imagine being looked up and down and being valued as less than chair. Less than an ox. Less than a dress. Maybe about the same as…a lantern. You, an object. An object to sell.
In his gentle yet deeply powerful way, Ashley Bryan goes to the heart of how a slave is given a monetary value by the slave owner, tempering this with the one thing that CAN’T be bought or sold—dreams. Inspired by the actual will of a plantation owner that lists the worth of each and every one of his “workers”, Bryan has created collages around that document, and others like it. Through fierce paintings and expansive poetry he imagines and interprets each person’s life on the plantation, as well as the life their owner knew nothing about—their dreams and pride in knowing that they were worth far more than an Overseer or Madam ever would guess.
Freedom in Congo Square: Chosen as a New York Times Best Illustrated Book of 2016, this poetic, nonfiction story about a little-known piece of African American history captures a human’s capacity to find hope and joy in difficult circumstances and demonstrates how New Orleans’ Congo Square was truly freedom’s heart.
As slaves relentlessly toiled in an unjust system in 19th century Louisiana, they all counted down the days until Sunday, when at least for half a day they were briefly able to congregate in Congo Square in New Orleans. Here they were free to set up an open market, sing, dance, and play music. They were free to forget their cares, their struggles, and their oppression. This story chronicles slaves’ duties each day, from chopping logs on Mondays to baking bread on Wednesdays to plucking hens on Saturday, and builds to the freedom of Sundays and the special experience of an afternoon spent in Congo Square. This book will have a forward from Freddi Williams Evans (freddievans.com), a historian and Congo Square expert, as well as a glossary of terms with pronunciations and definitions.
Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt (Reading Rainbow Books): As a seamstress in the Big House, Clara dreams of a reunion with her Momma, who lives on another plantation–and even of running away to freedom. Then she overhears two slaves talking about the Underground Railroad. In a flash of inspiration, Clara sees how she can use the cloth in her scrap bag to make a map of the land–a freedom quilt–that no master will ever suspect.
If You Lived When There Was Slavery In America: It is hard to imagine that, once, a person in America could be “owned” by another person. But from the time the colonies were settled in the 1600s until the end of the Civil War in 1865, millions of black people were bought and sold like goods. Where did the slaves come from? Where did they live when they were brought to this country? What kind of work did they do? With compassion and respect for the enslaved, this book answers questions children might have about this dismal era in American history.
Now Let Me Fly: The Story of a Slave Family (Aladdin Picture Books): A young girl describes how she once heard the sound of warning drums in Africa signaling the coming of horror. Kidnapped, made to march while chained, and taken to America to be sold at an auction, she undergoes the brutalities of slavery in this tale of a strong-willed girl who lives in harsh surroundings. Full color.
Frederick Douglass: The Last Day of Slavery: Born into slavery young Frederick dreams of the day he and his people will be free. Yet until that day comes, his only escape is through the books he reads, which take him to worlds far from his own. When a menacing overseer named Covey sees that Frederick is different from the others, he sets out to “break” the young reader. But Frederick’s surprising response to Covey’s brutality is an act of courage that frees forever what no person can hold captive: his spirit. In his picture book debut, fine artist Cedric Lucas a hauntingly realistic portrait of a cruel era. William Miller follows up his critically acclaimed Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree with a timeless reminder to readers of all ages and backgrounds that freedom is something to never be taken for granted.
Brick by Brick: Coretta Scott King Award-winners Charles R. Smith Jr. and Floyd Cooper deliver the compelling story behind the building of the White House, a powerful part of history rarely taught. The home of our president was built by many hands, several of them slaves’, who undertook this amazing achievement long before there were machines to do those same jobs. With an insightful author’s note and a list of selected resources, this book supports the Common Core State Standards.
Stirring and emotional, Cooper’s stunning illustrations bring to life the faces of those who endured hard, brutal work when the profit of their labor was paid to the master, not the slave. The fact that many were able to purchase their freedom after earning money from learning a trade speaks to the strength of those individuals. They created this iconic emblem of America, brick by brick.
From Slave Ship to Freedom Road: Rod Brown and Julius Lester bring history to life in this profoundly moving exploration of the slave experience. From the Middle Passage to the auction block, from the whipping post to the fight for freedom, this book presents not just historical facts, but the raw emotions of the people who lived them. Inspired by Rod Brown’s vivid paintings, Julius Lester has written a text that places each of us squarely inside the skin of both slave and slaveowner. It will capture the heart of every reader, black or white, young or old.
Be sure to visit out my other reading book lists focused on the African American experience, including: Civil Rights Picture Books for Children, Books for Black History Month, Martin Luther King Jr. Books for Kids, Non-Fiction Books about African American Women.
Must-Read Chapter Books About Slavery
Chains (The Seeds of America Trilogy): As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight…for freedom. Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, in a cruel twist of fate become the property of a malicious New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel. When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion. She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom.
From acclaimed author Laurie Halse Anderson comes this compelling, impeccably researched novel that shows the lengths we can go to cast off our chains, both physical and spiritual.
Up from Slavery (Dover Thrift Editions): Born in a Virginia slave hut, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) rose to become the most influential spokesman for African-Americans of his day. In this eloquently written book, he describes events in a remarkable life that began in bondage and culminated in worldwide recognition for his many accomplishments. In simply written yet stirring passages, he tells of his impoverished childhood and youth, the unrelenting struggle for an education, early teaching assignments, his selection in 1881 to head Tuskegee Institute, and more.
A firm believer in the value of education as the best route to advancement, Washington disapproved of civil-rights agitation and in so doing earned the opposition of many black intellectuals. Yet, he is today regarded as a major figure in the struggle for equal rights, one who founded a number of organizations to further the cause and who worked tirelessly to educate and unite African-Americans.
Stealing Freedom: Inspired by a true story, the riveting novel of a young slave girl’s harrowing escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad. The moment Ann Maria Weems was born, her freedom was stolen from her. Like her family and the other slaves on the farm, Ann works from sunup to sundown and obeys the orders of her master. Then one day, Ann’s family — the only joy she knows — is gone. Just 12 years old, Ann is overcome by grief, struggling to get through each day. And her only hope of stealing back her freedom and finding her family lies in a perilous journey: the Underground Railroad.
Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans: Kadir Nelson’s Heart and Soul—the winner of numerous awards, including the 2012 Coretta Scott King Author Award and Illustrator Honor, and the recipient of five starred reviews—now features eight pages of discussion and curriculum material.
The story of America and African Americans is a story of hope and inspiration and unwavering courage. This is the story of the men, women, and children who toiled in the hot sun picking cotton for their masters; it’s about the America ripped in two by Jim Crow laws; it’s about the brothers and sisters of all colors who rallied against those who would dare bar a child from an education. It’s a story of discrimination and broken promises, determination, and triumphs.
Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson’s Flight from Slavery: The page-turning, heart-wrenching true story of one young woman willing to risk her safety and even her life for a chance at freedom in the largest slave escape attempt in American history. In 1848, thirteen-year-old Emily Edmonson, five of her siblings, and seventy other enslaved people boarded the Pearl under cover of night in Washington, D.C., hoping to sail north to freedom. Within a day, the schooner was captured, and the Edmonsons were sent to New Orleans to be sold into even crueler conditions. Through Emily Edmonson’s journey from enslaved person to teacher at a school for African American young women, Conkling illuminates the daily lives of enslaved people, the often changing laws affecting them, and the high cost of a failed escape.
Jefferson’s Sons: A Founding Father’s Secret Children: This story of Thomas Jefferson’s children by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, tells a darker piece of America’s history from an often unseen perspective-that of three of Jefferson’s slaves-including two of his own children. As each child grows up and tells his story, the contradiction between slavery and freedom becomes starker, calliing into question the real meaning of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This poignant story sheds light on what life was like as one of Jefferson’s invisible offspring.
Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science: When this award-winning husband-and-wife team discovered that they each had sugar in their family history, they were inspired to trace the globe-spanning story of the sweet substance and to seek out the voices of those who led bitter sugar lives. The trail ran like a bright band from religious ceremonies in India to Europe’s Middle Ages, then on to Columbus, who brought the first cane cuttings to the Americas. Sugar was the substance that drove the bloody slave trade and caused the loss of countless lives but it also planted the seeds of revolution that led to freedom in the American colonies, Haiti, and France. With songs, oral histories, maps, and over 80 archival illustrations, here is the story of how one product allows us to see the grand currents of world history in new ways.
Be sure to check out my other reading book lists focused on the African American experience, including: Civil Rights Picture Books for Children, Books for Black History Month, Martin Luther King Jr. Books for Kids, Non-Fiction Books about African American Women.
Welcome to our third annual blog hop on Martin Luther King Day for Kids! Find great ideas for commemorating MLK Day with kids and don’t miss our series from last year and 2015! For even more, be sure to follow our Black History Pinterest board!