Learn how to explain the history of enslavement to kids with these children’s books about slavery, from the Underground Railroad to Frederick Douglas.
“It [Enslavement] is such a major part of American history, but it gets glossed over. I mean, the foundation of our early economy was based on slavery, and that’s missing,” Berry said. “And also, it’s the foundation of some of the challenges we have with current race relations. We never healed from this. It’s like that elephant in the room of our history that people don’t want to talk about because it’s uncomfortable.”
The failure to educate Americans about slavery in a deep and unflinching way reinforces divisions, said Bethany Jay, an associate professor at Salem State University and co-editor of “Understanding and Teaching American Slavery.”
from Washington Post
My daughter is studying slavery and the first thing I thought of what that our town was a part of the Underground Railroad. The Jackson Homestead in Newton, a museum and historic home on the National Underground Railroad Millennium Trail, is one such example in our neighborhood. I wish our home was one of the stops but it is not old enough.
Enslavement and the South End of Boston
Before we lived in Newton, we lived in an apartment and condominium in the South End. There was a large bronze statue of Harriet Tubman. I’d heard of her, of course, but I had no idea she lived in the South End of Boston.
Although Tubman never lived in Boston, she had links to the city through her network of abolitionist friends, one of whom opened the Harriet Tubman House as a settlement house for black women who had migrated from the South. The house has since relocated, but it still exists today as part of the United South End Settlements program. from Public Art Boston
Underground Railroad in Newton, MA
I was a chaperone for a field trip a few years ago for my oldest 5th grade enslavement unit, and we visited the Jackson Homestead and Museum where they showed us this shallow dry well in the basement that might have been used as a root cellar. It also hid the escaped enslaved people until they could be disguised and put on a railroad to Canada. I really like that my town had liberal leanings hundreds of years ago.
Jackson Homestead and Museum in Newton, MA
5th Grade Slavery Unit in Newton
And now enslavement has come full circle in 5th grade where my daughter and her classmates are reading about Colonial America as well as reading chapter books about enslavement.
Her teacher says, “We’ve discussed the use of enslaved people on Southern plantations and how important they were economically for the south.” She asks the parents to discuss enslavement with our kids by asking them questions. Some of these questions include:
What dangers did enslaved people face on the Underground Railroad?
What was life like for enslaved people?
How did people help the enslaved people on the Underground Railroad?
What was the Underground Railroad like?
Who helped runaway enslaved people?
Why were enslaved people willing to risk their lives to escape?
Why did people enslave others?
Is there enslavement in the world today?
The questions made me think of how I could show my kids that history exists all around us.
First stop, of course, would our local stop at the Jackson Homestead to see the slavery hiding place.
There is also the Black Heritage Trail in Boston, which isn’t as well known as the Freedom Trail. It includes stops for The African Meeting House, George Middleton House, and more.
Another way to facilitate discussion would be to read more picture books, chapter book, and young adult books that have enslavement themes. I’ve included the books our 5th grade teachers suggest and found a few others.
What are your favorite books for kids on enslavement? Please share and I’ll keep adding them to this list. Thank you!
Picture Books for Kids on Enslavement
Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson
Clara escapes to freedom by creating a quilt that maps the way to freedom. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Under the Quilt of Night by Deborah Hopkinson
This is the sequel to Sweet Clara. Traveling late one night, a runaway enslaved girl spies a quilt hanging outside a house. The quilt’s center is a striking deep blue — a sign that the people inside are willing to help her escape. Can she bravely navigate the complex world of the Underground Railroad and lead her family to freedom? [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
A true story of an enslaved man who shipped himself to freedom. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Michele Wood
Carole Boston Weatherford uses the metaphor of a box with six sides to tell the story of Henry Brown in powerful six-line stanzas, weaving in narratives from Henry Box Brown’s own writing with historical context. Pair this with Henry’s Freedom Box for a deep delve into his story both before and after his escape. The illustrations with a folk art aesthetic match the words perfectly in this picture book that doesn’t flinch in telling his story. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass by Lesa Cline Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome
Told from young Frederick Douglass’ first-person perspective, this is an unflinching portrait of his enslavement starting with separation from his mother. Details in both the illustrations and words portray the dehumanization such as the children eating from troughs with their bare, dirty hands, and Frederick being transported to a new location, bound and tied with rope. Frederick gets new opportunities when he is rented out to a new family, but it takes cunning on his part to turn knowledge of the alphabet into the ability to read.
Because the book focuses on his youth, pair it with Frederick Douglas: The Lion Who Wrote History by Walter Dean Myers to understand his full accomplishments as a leader of the anti-slavery movement. This book details his experience of enslavement. [picture book biography, ages 6 and up]
Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
I like this book for a broad overview of Frederick Douglass’ life that shows his place in history as a leader in the abolitionist movement. It is equally impressive that Frederick Douglass was self-educated yet went on to become a celebrated writer and eloquent speaker. There are more details of how he was able to accomplish his education in Words Set Me Free, making this a nice book pairing. And this book continues Douglass’ story where Words Set Me Free left off — his escape from enslavement to New York and then New Bedford, Massachusetts. Frederick Douglass also played a significant role in the Civil War, influencing policy to allow black soldiers in the Union Army. He helped to recruit these critically needed soldiers. After the war, Douglass continued to advocate for the rights of all American citizens and held various government posts, most notably as counsel-general for the U.S. to Haiti.
It’s difficult to sum up the accomplishments of this remarkable man. He’s not just an exceptional orator, writer, but a leader and political influencer who shaped the course of American history. From enslavement to helping to create The Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting slavery, Frederick Douglass lived during a crossroads in American history and helped to bridge that chasm to create a more perfect union for all people. [picture book biography, ages 5 and up]
Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco
This is the story of Patricia Polacco’s ancestor’s who survived the Civil War due to the kindness of a black soldier and his mother, both who perished brutally during the war. [picture book, ages 7 and up]
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
This poetic book is a resounding tribute to Tubman’s strength, humility, and devotion. With proper reverence, Weatherford and Nelson do justice to the woman who, long ago, earned over and over the name Moses. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad by Don Tate
This is the story of an extraordinary man, William Still, the father of the underground railroad and a coal entrepreneur who spent his life helping freedom seekers and recording their stories. He is a hidden figure in U. S. history and Don Tate brings his story to the fore, a step in rectifying the centering of Underground Railroad heroes around white abolitionists.
During the 1700s, Levin and Sidney Steel were enslaved in Maryland. At this time, Black people were free in the North but enslaved by whites in the South. Their youngest son, William, grew up hearing stories of his family’s escape from enslavement as well as his siblings who were still enslaved. As a young boy, he helped an escaped enslaved man find safety from his persecutors. William persisted to get an education and worked for an Anti-Slavery Society in Pennsylvania. It was his work here where he collected stories of those who recently found freedom. These stories, including one of his own brothers, became a book to reunite families torn about by slavery and preserve their stories. As the father of the underground railroad, William Still’s story belongs side-by-side in the annals of history alongside Harriet Tubman. [picture book biography, ages 6 and up]
. . . If You Lived When There Was Slavery in America by Anne Kamma
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. This book answers questions children might have about this dismal era in American history. [advanced picture book, ages 6 and up]
The Escape of Robert Smalls: A Daring Voyage Out of Slavery by Jehan Jones-Radgowski, illustrated by Poppy King
A lazy Confederate captain left his ship to visit his family. He could be court-martialed for this desertion. Robert Smalls was enslaved and he knew how to captain a ship. On May 12, 1862, Smalls executed a well-planned escape for freedom by posing as the captain of the ship. It was a dangerous journey; if caught by the Confederates, they would be killed. If the Union soldiers viewed them as the enemy they could be attacked. With sixteen runaway slaves, would they prevail?
This is an exciting true story of Robert Smalls’ daring escape. The endnotes tell more about Robert Smalls’ life. He became a politician and served in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was a remarkable man and I’m glad this book brings another hidden figure to light. [picture book, ages 8 and up]
Ona Judge Outwits the Washingtons: An Enslaved Woman Fights for Freedom by Gwendolyn Hooks, illustrated by Simone Agoussoye
It’s important to remember that George Washington enslaved many people, and Ona Judge was born into his household enslaved like her mother. When George and Martha moved to other cities because of his political position, they chose those who were not likely to run away. Keeping their property was important to them. When she was to be gifted as a wedding present, Ona planned her escape. Even in New Hampshire where she could work as a free person, she was not safe. The Washingtons found out that she was there and plotted her return. They tried to lure her back. When that didn’t work, they planned for a kidnapping.
This is a side to George Washington that is not well known but is a good reminder that the United States was founded on the backs of enslaved African Americans. [advanced picture book, ages 9 and up]
Hidden Heroes #1: Lewis Latimer: Inventors Innovators by Denise Lewis Patrick, illustrated by Daniel Duncan
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“Latimer was born in 1848. His parents had been enslaved in Virginia but had made their way to freedom in Boston before Latimer’s birth. His father eventually bought his own freedom, but left the family, perhaps fearing that they were in danger of being taken back into slavery. He joined the navy during the Civil War, and took a job at a patent office. He eventually taught himself mechanical drawing and drafting, and eventually was able to do those jobs. A keen observer, he developed several inventions himself. He worked with Alexander Graham Bell, rushing to get his patent application in, and later worked on incandescent lighting with Hiram Maxim as well as Thomas Edison. His knowledge of engineering in so many fields made him a valuable employee, and his willingness to learn new things (like French, when he was sent to Canada to work) helped as well. He died in 1928.” [middle grade biography, ages 8 and up]
Middle Grade and YA Books for Kids on Enslavement
Meet Addy: An American Girl
Addy Walker’s family is planning a dangerous escape from slavery in the summer of 1864. But before they can make the escape, the worst happens–Master Stevens decides to sell some of his slaves, including Poppa and Addy’s brother, Sam. Addy and Momma take the terrible risk of escaping by themselves, hoping that the family eventually will be together again in Philadelphia. Set during America’s own struggle over slavery, the Civil War, Addy’s story is one of great courage and love–love of family and love of freedom. [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
Eleven-year-old Elijah lives in Buxton, Canada, a settlement of runaway slaves near the American border. He’s the first child in town to be born free, and he ought to be famous just for that. Unfortunately, all that most people see is a “fragile” boy who’s scared of snakes and talks too much. But everything changes when a former slave steals money from Elijah’s friend, who has been saving to buy his family out of captivity in the South. Now it’s up to Elijah to track down the thief–and his dangerous journey just might make a hero out of him, if only he can find the courage to get back home. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
Chains (Seeds of America) by Laurie Halse Anderson
PickyKidPix is reading Chains as her assigned book for this unit and she is loving it! She also read Fever by Laurie Halse Anderson and would highly recommend it. [tween, ages 11 and up]
Forge (Seeds of America) by Laurie Halse Anderson
In this compelling sequel to Chains, a National Book Award Finalist and winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, acclaimed author Laurie Halse Anderson shifts perspective from Isabel to Curzon and brings to the page the tale of what it takes for runaway slaves to forge their own paths in a world of obstacles—and in the midst of the American Revolution. The Patriot Army was shaped and strengthened by the desperate circumstances of the Valley Forge winter. This is where Curzon the boy becomes Curzon the young man. In addition to the hardships of soldiering, he lives with the fear of discovery, for he is an escaped slave passing for free. And then there is Isabel, who is also at Valley Forge—against her will. She and Curzon have to sort out the tangled threads of their friendship while figuring out what stands between the two of them and true freedom. [tween, ages 11 and up]
Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates
Amos Fortune was born the son of an African king. In 1725, when he was 15 years old, he was captured by slave traders, brought to America and sold at auction. For 45 years, Amos worked as a slave and dreamed of freedom. At 60, he began to see those dreams come true. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
Steal Away Home by Lois Ruby
When twelve-year-old Dana Shannon starts to strip away wallpaper in her family’s old house, she’s unprepared for the surprise that awaits her. A hidden room — containing a human skeleton! How did such a thing get there? And why was the tiny room sealed up?
With the help of a diary found in the room, Dana learns her house was once a station on the Underground Railroad. The young woman whose remains Dana discovered was Lizbet Charles, a conductor and former slave. As the scene shifts between Dana’s world and in 1856, the story of the families that lived in the house unfolds. But as pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place, one haunting question remains — why did Lizbet Charles die? [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton
The house held secrets, Thomas knew, even before he first saw it looming gray and massive on its ledge of rock. It had a century-old legend — two fugitive slaves had been killed by bounty hunters after leaving its passageways and Dies Drear himself, the abolitionist who had made the house into a station on the Underground Railroad had been murdered there. The ghosts of the three were said to walk its rooms … [young adult, ages 12 and up]
Freewater by Amina Luqman Dawson
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“I had never heard of communities of formerly enslaved people living in the Great Dismal Swamp, and it’s always good to see unknown history highlighted. There is enough description of life on the plantation and the poor treatment of the residents that even students who are not familiar with this time period as they should be will get a better understanding of why communities like Freewater existed, since living in the middle of a swamp was not a pleasant experience. Homer’s dedication to his family and his determined attitude to escape and make a life for himself and his sister will resonate with young readers who want to work against injustice.” [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
Actress Alfre Woodard performs a very moving piece from an abolitionist, women’s rights proponent, and former slave Sojourner Truth that was originally delivered in 1851.
p.s. I have more books for children for Black History Month and The Civil Rights Movement:
Ten Chapter Books for Kids on the Civil Rights Movement. This list covers many genres including picture books, chapter books, Young Adult, and non-fiction.
Top 10: African American Picture Books. If you read the 10 books in order, it covers the key periods and people in African American history through picture books.
Celebrating MLK Day with 3 Children’s Books. I selected two picture books and one chapter book to help tell the story of the impact Martin Luther King, Junior made.
As Fast As Words Could Fly: Picture Book of the Day. Ruby Bridges came to visit my elementary school and her story is contrasted with 14-year-old Mason Steele who used his typing skills both as a writer and a speed typist to prove that he had the right to attend a previously all-white school.
Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day with Children’s Books. I have seven books for kids including picture books, YA, non-fiction and chapter books.
Booker T Washington: Picture Book of the Day. The story of Booker T. Washington told through an advanced picture book.
p.p.s. Washington Post: What do students learn about slavery? It depends where they live
“Unlike with math and science, there is no nationally agreed upon set of standards for teaching social studies. What public school children in the United States learn about slavery has almost everything to do with where they grow up…
In their official standards for teaching social studies and history, some states explicitly call for teaching about aspects of slavery throughout a student’s K-12 education, while others refer to it in passing or not at all.
Massachusetts mentions slavery 104 times in its history and social studies framework. Louisiana’s standards for K-12 social studies refer to slavery four times. Idaho’s guidelines mention slavery twice. Few states mention the enslavement of Native Americans in their standards despite growing scholarship that points to it being widespread in early colonial America and continuing throughout much of the 19th century, particularly in Western states and territories…
But Dunkerson-Hurst, a member of the Choctaw tribe, doesn’t skim when it comes to teaching her students about the role slavery has played in America. And she notes that her tribe, and others in Oklahoma that had been forced west on the Trail of Tears in 1838 by President Andrew Jackson, also kept African Americans as slaves.”
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.