Black History Month: Slavery

There’s been a storm of conversations recently in the children’s literature world over carefulness and truthfulness in our depictions of slavery. The good news in all of this is that we are having these conversations. This week, I’ve got seven strong choices for increasing our understanding of this painful piece of our history.

when the slave esperanca garcia wrote a letter cover imageWhen the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter, by Sonia Rosa, illustrated by Luciana Justiniani Hees, translated from the Portuguese by Jane Springer
published in 2015 by Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press

I didn’t imagine I would find the story of an amazing, Afro-Brazilian slave woman when I went book-looking, but this moving and visually-sophisticated account fairly leapt off the shelf.

After reading this short text, I only wish I could meet this person. She was an intelligent, caring, remarkably hopeful woman whose deep sorrows and trials could not break her spirit.

when the slave esperanca garcia wrote a letter interior2 rosa and hees

Esperança Garcia lived in the Brazilian state of Piauí in the mid-1700s. For a time she was owned by Jesuit priests and worked on their cotton farm. While there, she was taught to read and write which was a rarity in Brazil just as it was in the Southern United States. When she was sold to a new, cruel master, Garcia’s situation vastly deteriorated. She found she could not be silent, and wrote an eloquent letter to the governor.

when the slave esperanca garcia wrote a letter interior rosa and hees

Read her story, written with intimacy and grace, accompanied by these extraordinary pictures. Each page is vigorous and arresting, surging with Brazilian heat and dominated by the indomitable figure of Esperança herself. Ages 5 and up.

frederick's journey cover imageFrederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass, by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by London Ladd
published in 2016 by Disney/Jump at the Sun

When you see Doreen Rappaport’s name on a book, you just settle in with confidence that a remarkable connection is about to occur between you and her subject. And that’s exactly what we get from this newest book on Frederick Douglass.

His life’s journey is traced from the time he was a tiny babe-in-arms, wrenched from his mother as she stretches a helpless arm towards him with a brokenhearted wail, to his persevering accomplishment of helping obtain the vote for black men.

frederick's journey interior rappaport and ladd

Written in lyrical free verse, and interspersed with quotes from Douglass, it’s an eloquent biography. London Ladd’s powerful paintings pour strength, dignity, and determination across every page. Included are Author and Illustrator Notes on the making of the book, a timeline, and resources for further learning. An exceptional piece, highly recommended for ages 5 and up.

two friends cover imageTwo Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
published in 2016 by Orchard Books

Frederick Douglas, amidst his great struggle for African American rights, and Susan B. Anthony, in her epic struggle for women’s rights, met for tea one evening in Susan’s parlor, in Rochester, New York.

What a meeting! What a pair of battle-weary friends. Wouldn’t you love to have been there?!

two friends interior robbins, qualls, and alko

Beautifully written in a perceptive, parallel structure, with Qualls’ and Alko’s  vibrant illustrations incorporating text and image — this book offers a unique perspective on these individuals and their friendship. Highly recommended for ages 4 and up.

freedom in congo square cover imageFreedom in Congo Square, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
published in 2016 by Little Bee Books

Congo Square, in New Orleans, was a small patch of earth known around the world because of what took place there on Sunday afternoons during the days of slavery.

Not auctions. Not whippings. Not labors of any kind. But dancing.

freedom in congo square interior weatherford and christie

Anticipate that one day of freedom, celebration, community, and the music of home, in this jubilant story. Strikingly illustrated by Christie in gorgeous, graceful, leaping line and pulsating color.

An Author’s Note tells more about this uncommon piece of American history. Ages 3 and up.

henry's freedom box cover imageHenry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad, by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
published in 2007 by Scholastic Press

Henry “Box” Brown was enslaved in Virginia. As a young boy he was sold away from his beloved family, and as a young married man with three dear-as-life-itself children, he was again left bereft, his wife and children ripped away from him in one searingly-painful blink of an eye. All. Gone.

henry's freedom box illustration kadir nelson

So, when an idea came to Henry of a way to escape to the north, to freedom from the unspeakable griefs of slavery, what did he really have to lose? 

henry's freedom box illustration2 kadir nelson

His method: shipping himself in a wooden crate 350 miles to Philadelphia. Henry’s story is at once heartbreaking and triumphant. The magnificent illustrations of Kadir Nelson very deservedly won him a Caldecott Honor. Don’t miss this one, for ages 4 or 5 and up. A short Author’s Note adds a few more details to Henry’s story.

freedom river cover imageFreedom River, by Doreen Rappaport, pictures by Bryan Collier
published in 2000 by Jump at the Sun, Hyperion Books for Children

In this riveting story, you’ll meet an almost unbelievably brave named John Parker. And I don’t think you’ll ever be able to forget him.

He lived in Ripley, Ohio, just across the river from the slave state of Kentucky. John had been born a slave, earned enough money to buy his freedom, and become a successful businessman. That’s the short version, skipping over a whale of a lot of misery, clamor, and initiative which you can learn in the book’s Historical Note.

freedom river illustration bryan collier

But John wasn’t content with only freedom and comfort for himself. Instead he became one of the most active, bold conductors on the Underground Railroad. This book tells of his relentless pursuit of one young family and how he risked his life again and again to usher them to freedom. Incredible. 

One of the things I love about Bryan Collier is that in his Illustrator Notes he shares rich insights about how and why he pieces together the elements of his commanding, award-winning collages. Don’t miss reading these Notes! You and your kids will learn a lot about the subject, and become more art-literate at the same time. Ages 4 and up.

night boat to freedom cover imageNight Boat to Freedom, by Margot Theis Raven, pictures by E.B. Lewis
published in 2006 by Melanie Kroupa Books, Farrar Straus and Giroux

Here’s another story of a young man risking all to bring slaves across the river from Kentucky to Ohio. It is inspired by accounts taken down by WPA writers who compiled slave narratives during the 30s.

night boat to freedom illustration e.b. lewis

This young man, Christmas John, is far younger than John Parker, though. Just 12 years old when he ferries his first passenger across in the dead of night, quieting the oars, straining to see the light of the stationmaster who waits on the far shore. After that first success, John keeps up his rescue work for years, until it’s finally too dangerous for him and dear Granny Judith to stay a moment longer.

night boat to freedom illustration2 e.b. lewis

Margot Raven has constructed some beautiful, winning characters here after immersing herself in hundreds and hundreds of fascinating interviews of ex-slaves. E.B. Lewis is one of my favorite illustrators, and here again his masterful watercolor work brings these people and scenery and emotions to life with strength and beauty. Ages 5 and up.