8 Kids’ Books on Slavery
by the Brightly Editors
On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger delivered the following message in Galveston, Texas, where slave owners had refused for over two years to comply with the Emancipation Proclamation:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
So began the recognition of Juneteenth (a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth”), which has grown into a widely celebrated event marking the end of slavery in Texas, and thus the entire United States. To commemorate Freedom Day, we’re recommending books that explore the painful history of American slavery — a necessity, if we’re to understand and reckon with present-day racism — as well as highlight those who risked their lives for equality and the fugitives from slavery who traveled the long and perilous road to freedom.
Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky
First introduced in the award-winning Tar Beach, Cassie Lightfoot is gifted with the ability to soar through the sky. On one of these late-night flights, Cassie and her brother meet Harriet Tubman, who shows them the route on which slaves escaped along the Underground Railroad. Rooted in history yet entwined with the whimsical, this gorgeously illustrated picture book is a wonderful introduction to the work of Harriet Tubman and fellow abolitionists.
(Ages 3 - 7)
Many Thousand Gone
Virginia Hamilton’s widely hailed Many Thousand Gone shows readers the trajectory of slavery in the United States through the people who lived it. Told in three parts — “Slavery in America,” “Running-Aways,” and “Exodus to Freedom” — Hamilton presents a comprehensive history of the institution of slavery in the U.S., from its introduction in the colony of Virginia in 1619. Complemented by stunning black-and-white illustrations, it’s an excellent resource for young readers.
(Ages 3 - 7)
Before She Was Harriet
A biography in verse paired with brilliant watercolor illustrations, Before She Was Harriet traces the life of the well-known abolitionist in reverse chronological order, revealing the many names and roles that the woman we know as Harriet Tubman held during different periods of her life. Spy, suffragist, slave, daughter; General Tubman, Moses, Minty, Araminta. This Coretta Scott King Honor Book is an instant modern classic and a must-read for learners of all ages.
(Ages 4 - 8)
In Show Way, beloved author Jacqueline Woodson shares a tradition passed down through the generations from mothers to daughters, including in Woodson’s own family. To the untrained eye, Show Ways are simply quilts; but to those who created them, and those whom the quilts sought to free, they contained secret messages to help slaves find their way to freedom. Born free, a young girl named Soonie learns how to sew quilts, just like the women before her.
(Ages 4 - 8)
When Ruth Ellen and her parents climb aboard the Silver Meteor train bound for New York, they also join the ranks of millions of African Americans, some formerly enslaved and others born free, who leave the South in the hope of a better life during an era now known as the Great Migration. As Ruth Ellen observes her changing surroundings, she reads from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and finds similarities between her journey and Douglass’s.
(Ages 4 - 8)
The Patchwork Path
A perfect counterpart to Jacqueline Woodson’s Show Way, The Patchwork Path also features secretly coded quilts, though this time the young girl at the center is following the secrets toward freedom. Alongside her Papa, Hannah deciphers the precious gift from Mama and makes the brave and perilous journey north from Georgia. Hannah and her father embody the stories of thousands of slaves who risked everything to be free.
(Ages 5 - 8)
From Slave Ship to Freedom Road
“I think often of those ancestors of mine whose names I did not know, whose names I will never know, those ancestors who saw people thrown into the sea like promises casually made and easily broken.” So begins Julius Lester’s profound and crucial history of slavery in America for older readers, starting with the devastating conditions of the slave ships traveling the Middle Passage and concluding, finally, with freedom.
(Ages 8 - 12)
Trailblazers: Harriet Tubman
From the inspiring Trailblazers series comes a riveting biography of Harriet Tubman, ideal for middle grade readers. Although she secured freedom for herself as she crossed the Mason-Dixon line — having endured a dangerous, nearly 100-mile journey — Tubman couldn’t rest until she’d led as many others to freedom as she could. In addition to details of Tubman’s life, readers will learn important historical context — including the conditions of slavery and the divide between the North and South.
(Ages 8 - 12)