Thursday, 21 January 2016

Honest books about Slavery for children.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, this post contains affiliate links, which means that I may get a commissions if you decide to purchase anything. I only recommend products that I have used and love myself, so I know you’ll be in good hands.)


There has been many criticism of children's book depicting slavery with an overly rose tinted glasses view of a slaves life with smiling mothers and their children baking blackberry pie serving it to the family master.

Too many people, particularly white people do not grasp, or prefer not to grasp, the depth and breadth of slavery's horrors. 

It is not uncommon to see clueless social media posts or read obtuse comments by politicians arguing that slavery ultimately benefited Africans.

Many children, and, sadly, their parents, still need to learn that slavery wasn't idyllic, a boon to their family lives, or an improvement over remaining in their homelands. In fact, slavery was often brutal and dehumanizing even when owners exhibited basic kindness. Slaves were often sold away from their families and loved ones with no notice, destroying what little domestic life they were allowed to have, and the severing of blacks from their ancestors and heritage in Africa is an irreversible trauma.

Here are 14 (mostly) honest books for young readers that will help them confront the unpalatable truth of slavery, and celebrate the ingenuity and strength of those who resisted, escaped and survived.

Sadly due to the lack of British Writers of Children's Historically accurate Fiction Novels there are only a couple of British books here, most of the books are American so a certain amount of knowledge about America may come in handy for some children.

  • Sarah Mussi in The Door Of No Return, Zac Baxter's grandfather has always told him that he's the descendant of African kings, whose treasure was stolen when his ancestors were sold into slavery. 

  • Carole Boston Weatherford - Moses - A reverent retelling of Harriet Tubman's brave work on the Underground Rail road, written by Carole Boston Weatherford with illustrations by Kadir Nelson.


  • Laban Carrick Hill - Dave the potter - David Drake was a real artist who lived in slavery, he died not long after Emancipation. But he left behind many beautiful ceramic works, some of which he inscribed with original poetic couplets. This meticulous book by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier, celebrates his genius while reminding us that it was no protection from the inhumanity of being "owned."

  • Deborah Hopkinson - Sweet Clara and the freedom quiltThis picture book, written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by James Ransome, tries to present the painful truth about slavery without images that will overly upset young children. It tells the story of a young girl who resourcefully hides a map to freedom in a quilt design. 

  •   Patricia and Fredrick McKissack have turned out a number of thoughtful books to introduce kids to the horrors of slavery. In this seemingly idyllic holiday book, they joltingly juxtapose the idle luxury in the big house of the master with the deprivation, labour and hope for freedom in the slave quarters.

  • Sojourner Truth - Step, Stomp, Stride - Sojourner Truth, like Harriet Tubman, is a great historical figure for kids to start reading about early on. This vibrant picture book by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney celebrates the strength and resourcefulness of Truth in playful, engaging language.
  • Ellen Levine - Henry's Freedom Box - A retelling of the true story of Henry "Box" Brown, written by Ellen Levine and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, this gorgeous picture book shows Brown's heartbreaking separation from his wife and children, who are sold to new owners, and his determination to escape by any means. His ultimate, successful plan: mailing himself to freedom in a box.

  • Sharon M. Draper - Copper Sun - Sharon M. Draper's novel, an unflinching examination of the slave trade, is appropriate for somewhat older readers. It follows an Ashanti teenager, Amari, who is kidnapped by slavers, brought to the Carolinas, and sold to a plantation family, along the way seeing and experiencing shocking brutalities -- while still nursing a hope for freedom. 


  • Gary Paulsenn - Nightjohn - Gary Paulsen doesn't pull his punches -- his wilderness survival YA book, Hatchet, makes camping sound nightmarish -- and this young adult novel brings atrocities from the author's research off the page, from vicious dog attacks on runaways to mutilation as a punishment for teaching other slaves to read. The violence may seem gratuitous, but there's no happy whitewashing of slavery here.
    The Dear America diaries might seem a little kitschy, but they offer an entire narrative from the viewpoint of a young girl at certain points in history. Still better, acclaimed black authors Patricia McKissack and Joyce Hansen each offer fully realized, honest portraits of girls living in slavery, and in its aftermath, in the series.
  • A saga stretching for generations, Walter Dean Myers' The Glory Field follows one family from its first ancestor kidnapped and sold into slavery up until five generations later, now free from slavery but still suffering deeply from its wounds. 

  •  Julius Lester - Day of Tears - In a novel told in dialogue, Julius Lester dramatizes the day of the single largest slave auction in American history, when one Georgia plantation owner sold hundreds of slaves in order to pay off debts. The human suffering caused by such auctions leaps off the page in this heart-wrenching book.

  • The protagonist of Christopher Paul Curtis' Elijah of Buxton is the first person born free in a small community of escaped slaves north of the Canadian border. But unexpected events draw him south, and slowly he begins to discover the truth of the enslaved life his family escaped, and how desperately he values his own freedom.

  • Patricia McKissack - Never Forgotten With striking illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon, Patricia McKissack poetically tells the story of a West African father whose son is stolen by slavers and taken to America. McKissack gives words to a mourning for lost ancestors, and lost loved ones, created by the cruelties of the slave trade and all-too-often neglected in historical accounts.

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