15 Nonfiction and Fiction Titles for Young Readers About Slavery in the United States

As we commemorate the lives and history of Black peoples in the United States this February, SLJ has curated lists of fiction and nonfiction books that can be paired in the classroom to offer a nuanced presentation of major historical events of Black history.

montage of nonfiction covers on the topic of slavery in the U.S.

As we commemorate the lives and history of Black peoples in the United States this February, SLJ has curated lists of fiction and nonfiction books that can be paired in the classroom to offer a nuanced presentation of major historical events of Black history.

In this roundup, we feature books that cover some of the experiences lived by the enslaved in this country, from 1619 (the first slave ship) to 1865 (Juneteenth).



 Alexander, Kwame. An American Story. illus. by Dare Coulter. Little, Brown. Jan. 2023. ISBN 9780316473125.
PreS-Gr 3–In lyrical verse, Alexander tells the powerful story of American slavery and African resilience through the eyes of a teacher navigating students through this horrific period in American history. The shifting narrative moves between the teacher’s account and the students’ reactions, with Alexander magnifying the unfolding terror of a people stolen from home and thrust into slavery. Coulter’s stunning mixed-media artwork illustrates the unflinching brutality of slavery and the beauty of a resilient people who “hold history in one hand and clench hope in the other.” Classroom scenes are sketched in black against a warm yellow background, with expressive students and teacher working through the difficult lesson. Author and illustrator notes provide further context. VERDICT An excellent and essential first purchase for all collections; whether for curriculum-building or classroom-sharing, this book is unforgettable.

RedReviewStar Dunbar, Erica Armstrong & Kathleen van Cleve. Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge: George and Martha Washington’s Courageous Slave Who Dared To Run Away. S. & S./Aladdin. Jan. 2019. ISBN 9781534416178.
Gr 5 Up—This young readers edition of Dunbar's National Book Award–nominated title details the account of Ona Judge, who ran away from the household of George and Martha Washington. Born into slavery at Mount Vernon, Judge began working directly for Martha Washington by the age of 10. When the Washingtons left Mount Vernon for George's political career, Judge was chosen to make the trip north, visiting and eventually living in Pennsylvania and New York. In May of 1796, then 22-year-old Judge walked out of the Washington's mansion in Philadelphia and onto the deck of a ship that would take her to New Hampshire. Although she was never able to live comfortably, she refused to go back to a life of slavery—no matter how determined George and Martha Washington were to reenslave her. This well-written story has been skillfully reconstructed from the sparse historical record available and delicately adapted for middle schoolers. Dunbar and van Cleve effectively and consistently convey the realities of being enslaved. VERDICT A brilliant work of U.S. history.

Lewis, Cicely. Resistance to Slavery. ISBN 9781728439068.
Smith, Elliott. Abolitionism. ISBN 9781728439099.
––––. Jim Crow. ISBN 9781728439075.
––––. The Slave Trade. ISBN 9781728439051.
––––. Slavery and Reconstruction. ISBN 9781728439105.
––––. Slavery and the Civil War. ISBN 9781728439082.
ea vol: Lerner. Jan. 2022.
Gr 4-8–This series is part of the Read Woke Books imprint in partnership with Cicely Lewis, who wrote the introductory letter found in each book. The titles cover events and important figures from the beginning of slavery in America up through the Jim Crow era. A note encourages readers to view the photos and illustrations critically, and additional reflection questions are scattered throughout the books. In “Primary Source Voices,” QR codes access recordings of formerly enslaved persons or other historical narratives, while the “Take Action” section offers virtual trips to national historic sites and museums as well as ideas for how to become politically active. There is also a Read Woke reading list in the back matter of each title. VERDICT An important purchase for those who want to broaden the perspectives in their ­American History collection.

Rolle, Sojourner Kincaid. Free at Last: A Juneteenth Poem. illus. by Alex Bostic. Sterling. May 2022. ISBN 9781454943747.
Gr 1-4–Juneteenth, an important celebration of the end of slavery, was first celebrated in Texas in 1865. This was several years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, when enslaved individuals learned of their freedom. Rolle’s poem offers glimpses of the joy of freedom, the hardships of the years after, and how Juneteenth has evolved over time. Many lines directly quote the Emancipation Proclamation, such as “All who live in bondage here shall from now until be free.” Spreads give more context to the meaning behind the freedom Juneteenth celebrates, through depictions of formerly enslaved individuals moving forward and finally celebrating in modern times with friends and family. The poem has an overall lyrical feel that evokes a range of emotions, from sadness for the realities of the many hardships still faced right after emancipation, to the hope and resilience of newfound freedom. In the author’s note, Rolle includes more of the history behind Juneteenth, which only became recognized as a national holiday in 2021. This book presents historical moments in an accessible way, through artwork and poetry. VERDICT A worthy purchase for elementary libraries needing nonfiction texts for the Juneteenth holiday.



 Alexander, Kwame. The Door of No ­Return. Little, Brown. Sept. 2022. ISBN 9780316441865.
Gr 5 Up–The beginning of a planned trilogy set in western Africa in 1860, the latest offering from Newbery winner Alexander introduces readers to Kofi Offin. His experiences are a window to what life would have been like for a boy growing up in that specific place and time. When Kofi’s brother accidentally kills his opponent in a wrestling match, the gentle verse narrative is disrupted because the family of the dead wrestler captures Kofi and his brother. They take them away from their village to the coast; Kofi goes through the door of no return and is put on a boat where things get very bad very quickly. Books with enslaved main characters certainly exist in juvenile fiction, but the reality of the transatlantic slave trade hasn’t been so adeptly captured for young readers to date. VERDICT Told in Alexander’s lyrical and masterly style, this gritty and compelling novel of Kofi’s life should be included in all library collections that serve young readers. 

Giddens, Rhiannon. Build a House. illus. by Monica Mikai. Candlewick. Oct. 2022. ISBN 9781536222524.
Gr 3 Up–In a few short stanzas, this story-song encapsulates and sets to haunting, minor-key music the African American experience of being taken as slaves and forced to work, then emancipated only to continue to face endless racism. Radiant artwork shows people working hard and trying to make a living as well as the anguish of being displaced and having to start over. At the end of the book, there is a QR code that provides a link to a performance of the song by Giddens on banjo and Yo-Yo Ma on cello that helps bring the musical part of the song alive. This is a difficult topic to discuss with younger children who are typically the audience for picture books, but the historical Black experience in America gains an excellent conversation starter here, in any study about racism or the American past. VERDICT A beautifully illustrated song about the African American experience, with realistic depictions of work and experiences; this is a great choice for libraries looking for new ways to tell stories about slavery, reparations, and the ongoing need for social justice.

 Hannah-Jones, Nikole & Renée Watson. The 1619 Project: Born on the Water. illus. by Nikkolas Smith. Kokila. Nov. 2021. ISBN 9780593307359.
Gr 2-5–An illustrated work on the 1619 Project for young readers, this adaptation begins with a visual journey back centuries to the Kingdom of Ndongo in West Central Africa, the birthplace of their ancestors. The authors’ storytelling is utterly hypnotic, revealing a vibrant community that once spoke their own language and flourished in building and trade. The opening pages radiate warmth, elation, and celebration through the artwork, which moves and dances along with the people. With the turn of the page, the triumphant atmosphere vanishes as terror envelops the community, artfully represented in dark mournful blues and deep fiery reds. The horror of the voyage and the subsequent life in Virginia where these families became slaves is deeply felt through the evocative images. The narrative is told in a flowing verse that informs, yet also stirs emotion. The lyrical text does not leave readers in despair, but confident in the knowledge of the legacy so many Black people forged, “Never forget you come from a people of great strength,” Grandma says, “Be proud of our story, your story.” VERDICT A stunning work, providing a glimpse into the history of the Black experience before and after the slave trade; the poetic language and breathtaking artwork will have a lasting effect on readers.

Luqman-Dawson, Amina. Freewater. Little, Brown. Feb. 2022. ISBN 9780316056618.
Gr 5-8–Sometimes, to be free, you have to make a life in a place where no one can find you. Freewater is such a place. With their mother leading the way, Homer and his younger sister Ada try to escape their hellish lives of slavery on the Southerland Plantation. But Homer remembers his promise of freedom to his friend Anna; his mother turns back for her but is caught. Homer and Ada run to nearby river and plunge into the raging waters that carry them into the Great Dismal Swamp. Lost and disoriented, they are rescued by Suleman, a mysterious and taciturn guide who leads them through the inhospitable swamp to Freewater, a settlement of escaped men, women, and children living in freedom. Slowly, Homer begins to appreciate living and working together to contribute to the thriving community. But what about his mama? Plagued by guilt about his mother’s capture, Homer decides to return to the plantation to rescue his mother and Anna. His new friends from Freewater pledge to return with him. Using a hand-drawn map that (unbelievably) survives multiple drenchings, Homer and company undertake the seemingly impossible rescue. Told from many alternating points of view, it is somewhat challenging to keep the characters straight at the outset. While using archeological evidence of settlements of formerly enslaved people within the Great Dismal Swamp as the basis for the text, the story itself is a speculative look into such a community. VERDICT A fascinating look at a fictional Black resistance settlement in a little-known place.

Williams, Katherine. Freedom Soldiers. Hard Ball. Jun. 2019. ISBN 9781732808850.
Gr 9 Up–Harriet Roberson aspires to become a courier to rescue fugitive slaves from the American South to free Black settlements in Canada via the Underground Railroad. She escaped from slavery with her mother, Abiah, across the frozen Ohio River in Virginia years before and comes of age on the Elgin Settlement in the Buxton community of Ontario. Harriet secretly yearns for her father, Jacob, to miraculously reunite with her and Abiah, though she is unaware of his whereabouts. Harriet develops into a young woman hungry for freedom, education, and equality. She falls in love with Thaddeus Childs, a dedicated courier traumatized by painful memories of enslavement who agonizes over having left his family behind in the North Carolina Great Dismal Swamp community. Despite the Fugitive Slave Act threatening their lives, Harriet and Thaddeus bond together to fight and destroy slavery. Williams has crafted a smart YA novel that presents the stories of Black people liberating themselves from slavery through grassroots community networks. Readers will enjoy the juxtaposition of the accounts of the settlers and their descendants in the United States and Canada. Williams brings alive lesser-known African American and African Canadian historical figures of the Underground Railroad. VERDICT This is an intelligent pick for readers who are looking for stories depicting enslaved, fugitive, and free Black people as change agents for their liberation during slavery in the African diaspora.

 Williams-Garcia, Rita. A Sitting in St. James. HarperCollins/Quill Tree. May 2021. ISBN 9780062367297.
Gr 9 Up–In 1860, Madame Sylvie Bernardin de Maret Dacier Guilbert rules Le Petit Cottage in the St. James Parish region of Louisiana with an iron fist. She is disappointed in her son, Lucien, who is experiencing financial woes in operating the plantation. She denies the existence and presence of her mixed-race granddaughter, Rosalie, whom she forbids in her home. She places all her hope in her white grandson, Byron, to continue their royal French bloodline and inherit their family vineyard in France. She suspects Byron is in love with fellow West Point cadet Robinson Pearce so she sets up his engagement to Eugénie Duhon. She abuses her enslaved girl Thisbe into total silence at her beck and call. She assumes etiquette lessons for tomboyish Jane Chatham, a planter’s daughter who is uninterested in womanhood and focuses all her energies on her horse, Virginia Wilder, and the amount of meat in her meals. She looks forward to sitting for a portrait. However, her Old-World mindset begins to erode beyond her control. This is a wonderful character-driven novel as stories of the enslaved and the slaveowners are simultaneously told. Williams-Garcia does an excellent job in taking readers through France’s colonial and revolutionary histories and their impact on Louisiana’s development as a New World outpost. VERDICT This novel is a necessary purchase for conversations about slavery’s legacy in the Black Lives Matter era.

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