The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass | A Bibliography

A selected bibliography in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass.

February 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of orator, abolitionist, newspaperman, statesman, and civil rights activist Frederick Douglass. In conjunction with School Library Journal's interview with Tonya Bolden on Facing Frederick (Abrams, Jan. 208; Gr 6 Up), we offer a short list of books for kindergarten through grade eight on the celebrated American.

Frederick Douglass in His Own Words. Edited by Milton Meltzer. illus. by Stephen Alcorn. HMH. 1995. Gr 6 Up–Readers can discover Douglass’s intelligent, eloquent, and still-relevant insights for themselves in this carefully chosen treasure trove of primary resource materials. Chronologically arranged excerpts from Douglass’s speeches and writings are divided into sections covering before, during, and after the Civil War. Meltzer provides helpful historical background and thoughtful introductions to each selection. Douglass’s articulate, often-impassioned writings reflect on his harrowing experiences as an enslaved man and his efforts to win his people’s freedom, the condition of free blacks, the handling of the Civil War and Lincoln’s presidency, Reconstruction and the years following, rights of women, and more, providing knowledge about the man himself while also offering a contemporary snapshot of beliefs and culture in 19th-century America. Alcorn’s majestic linocut prints—both portraits and allegorical scenes—offer an affecting visual interpretation of the abolitionist’s life and times. An outstanding resource for student research and classroom discussion.

Myers, Walter Dean. Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History. illus. by Floyd Cooper. HarperCollins, 2017. Gr 2-5–Can one individual make a difference? This inspiring picture book biography illustrates how Douglass’s “careful and wise decisions…to learn to read, to escape from slavery, to speak out for justice for all Americans” changed the course of history. Myers’s flowing narrative encapsulates watershed moments in Douglass’s life with a riveting balance of personal perspective and historical context. Cooper’s handsome sepia-toned paintings, filled with vivid details of time and place, accentuate the text’s emotional impact as a young Frederick dreams of having the chance to build a better life; bravely faces down a beating from slave-breaker Edward Covey at age 16; kisses the brow of the woman he loves but is not free to marry in front of a moonlit sky as an adult; or, after escaping north to freedom, passionately speaks for human rights. Swept into these dramatically depicted events, readers will understand how Douglass’s voice, “born in the soft tones of the slave population,” transformed into “a lion’s roar.”

Robbins, Dean. Two Friends. illus. by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko. Scholastic. 2016. K-Gr 3–In this buoyant picture book, Robbins imagines what it may have been like when two champions of freedom, abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony, met for tea, cake, and conversation on a snowy day in Rochester, New York. The lyrical text briefly introduces the lives and accomplishments of these two true-life compatriots and emphasizes how both individuals dared to think differently, spoke their hearts despite opposition, and worked tirelessly to help others. Filled with bright hues and winsome touches, the endearing artwork incorporates period documents and playful text-inspired imagery to underscore the capacity of language—presented in both speeches and the written word—to transform the world.

Cline-Ransome, Lesa. Words Set Me Free. illus. by James E. Ransome. S&S. 2012. Gr 2-5–Focusing on his early years, this engaging picture book biography traces the origins of Douglass’s discovery of the power of reading and celebrates his unshakable determination to live free. The gripping first-person narrative immediately draws readers into events, while sweeping double-page paintings in lush hues provide realistic details and emphasize emotional nuances. Beginning with a boyhood spent in bondage on Maryland plantations, much of the story concentrates on Douglass’s journey to Baltimore at age eight and time spent “rented out” to the Auld family, where the kindhearted Missus began to teach him to read. Though her husband quickly put an end to her efforts, Douglass bravely took matters into his own hands (“I knew that if learning made me no longer want to be a slave, then I would secure my freedom one letter at a time”). The book ends with his return to Great House Farm at age 15, and his first attempt at escape. Though this effort was unsuccessful (as explained in an author’s note), the book’s rousing text and soaring artwork leave no doubt in readers’ minds that one day, words would truly set Douglass free.

Rappaport, Doreen. Frederick’s Journey. illus. by London Ladd. Disney. 2015. Gr 3-5–Concise and insightful text, striking full-bleed paintings, and well-chosen excerpts from Douglass’s own writings provide an accessible and fast-reading entrée to the life and accomplishments of this tireless fighter for freedom. Unforgettable double-page scenes poignantly telegraph defining childhood moments—being taken from his distraught mother’s arms as an infant; learning to fish with his loving grandmother as a young boy; or, at age six, resolutely staring down a large dog for the “smallest crumbs” of food. Several powerful spreads convey Frederick’s discovery of reading and the power of words while he was a youngster in Baltimore, while another depicts the moment he fought back after being sent to a farmer who tried to break his spirit by cruelly mistreating him (the quote reads, “This battle was the turning-point in my life as a slave…It inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREE MAN”). The final third of the book covers his escape to freedom, his work as orator and writer, and a career spent advocating for equal rights for all. Filled with impactful moments and stirring quotes, this book makes a riveting read-aloud and starting point for further study.

See also SLJ's interview with Tonya Bolden on her latest book, Facing Frederick (Abrams, Jan. 2018).

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