Slavery: 12 Books to Teach America’s Past to Children

Slavery. It’s something some people don’t want to talk about, and something some people want to make restitution for because they are ashamed of and want to repair the damage of this part of American history.

For example, you may have seen in the news recent stories of San Francisco debating giving sizable reparations to its Black citizens.

March 25—this Saturday—is International Day of Remembrance for Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. To honor this day, we have researched books for children of all ages that are on the subject of slavery, resilience, hope, and courage.

While this list isn’t exhaustive, these 12 books are award-winning and are great places to start talking about the subject of slavery with the children in your life.


12 Children’s Books on Slavery

The 1619 Project Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Renee Watson, and Nikkolas Smith chronicles the consequences of slavery and the history of Black Resistance in the United States. Publisher’s Weekly wrote of this book, “Black history is not merely a story of slavery and suffering but one of perseverance and hope” and Kirkus Reviews called the book “a gift to Black Americans and everyone else who reads it.”

Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story From the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine and Kadi Nelson is the dramatic story of a slave who mails himself to freedom. Levine is a Jane Addams Peace Award-winning author and Nelson is a Coretta Scott King Award-winning artist.

Light in the Darkness: A Story About How Slaves Learned in Secret by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome is the story of a mother and her daughter who go to school in a literal hole in the ground in the dark of night where they learn to read, something they would be punished for if their master found out.

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson is a middle grade novel and is part of the Seeds of America trilogy. The books starts in the spring of 1776 when Isabel, a teenage slave, and her sister, Ruth, are sold to ruthless wealthy Manhattanites who are against the American Revolution. Isabel is approached by rebels who promise her freedom and help finding her sister who has been sent away if she is willing to become a spy for them.

Before She was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome has received many book honors. The book is written as a moving and beautiful poetic tribute to Harriet Tubman, the American hero.

BOX: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford and Michele Wood is a Newbery Honor Book. Written in verse, the story tells of how Henry Brown was born into slavery before mailing himself inside a sealed crate from Virginia to Philadelphia in 1849, and to freedom.

Source: Scholastic

Elijah of Buxton: Religious and Political Experience in Colonial Pennsylvania, 1740-1770 by multiple-award-winning Christopher Paul Curtis is the story of eleven-year-old Elijah who lives in a settlement of runaway slaves just over the Canadian border. As Booklist says, “Curtis relates the difficulty of tackling the subject of slavery realistically through a child’s first-person perspective. Here, readers learn about conditions in slavery at a distance, though the horrors become increasingly apparent. Among the more memorable scenes are those in which Elijah meets escaped slaves—first, those who have made it to Canada and, later, those who have been retaken by slave catchers. Central to the story, these scenes show an emotional range and a subtlety unusual in children’s fiction.”

Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson and Hudson Talbott is the winner of a Newbery Honor. The picture book tells the story of Soonie’s great-grandma who was sold into slavery at age seven and who sewed quilts into Show Ways—maps for slaves to follow to freedom.

From Slave Ship to Freedom by Julius Lester and Rod Brown, this book for young adults covers “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,” according to a note from the publisher.

Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams by Ashley Bryan uses original slave auction and plantation estate documents in this picture book that contrasts the monetary value of a person with the priceless value of life experiences and dreams that a slave owner could never take away. This book was a Newbery Honor Book and a Coretta Scott King Honor book for both its writing and its illustrations.


Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie won a Charlotte Zolotow Award, is a Caldecott Honor Book, and won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. It is a nonfiction story that features Congo Square in New Orleans, a place where slaves would gather on Sunday afternoons—their only time off—where they would sing, dance, and play instruments and maintained their cultural traditions.

Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith Ringgold retraces the steps escaping slaves took on the real Underground Railroad using Tar Beach-based child Cassie and her brother Be Be and the train full of people that they meet in a mixture of fiction and historical facts.

And if you need books for older children, you can also check the blog we did during Black History Month about Black authors every high schooler should know. 

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