13 Honest Books About Slavery Young People Should Actually Read

No, the biggest concern of enslaved people wasn't whether there was enough sugar to make a cake for their master's birthday.

01/19/2016 02:09 pm ET
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These are just a handful of the great books out there that attempt to portray slavery honestly, as well as appropriately, for young readers.

This week, after severe criticism, Scholastic pulled a newly published picture book entitled A Birthday Cake for Mr. Washington. The book, which was written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, focused on George Washington's enslaved cook, Hercules, and his daughter Delia, as the two overcome obstacles to make a cake for Washington's birthday.

Many critics argued that it displayed an overly rosy view of a slave's life, and the book was deluged with one-star on Amazon reviews.

The book's publication was a surprising misstep coming from an author/illustrator team of two women of color. Experienced illustrator Brantley-Newton, in particular, has a long resumé working on projects with a strong basis in black history and culture. What's more, the book's editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney, is a Coretta Scott King Award-winner in her own right, as well as the founder of Jump at the Sun, an African-American-focused children's book imprint at Hyperion. 

It's not the first such misstep in recent months, however; last fall, McGraw-Hill apologized after a Texas mother, Roni Dean-Burren, publicly criticized her son's World Geography textbook for euphemistically describing Africans brought to America in the slave trade as "workers." Another picture book, A Fine Dessert, drew critiques for author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Sophie Blackall (both white) for including a seemingly cheerful slave mother and daughter making blackberry fool and serving it to the family of their master. 

Though Ganeshram defended A Birthday Cake for Mr. Washington as portraying the ingenuity of slaves who were able to attain better treatment through their skills and closeness to their owners, context matters. While the writer-illustrator-editor team who worked on this book come from diverse backgrounds and are steeped in historically accurate renditions of black history, the fact remains that too many Americans -- particularly white Americans -- don't grasp, or prefer not to grasp, the depth and breadth of slavery's horrors. 

It's not uncommon to see clueless social media posts or read obtuse comments by politicians arguing that slavery ultimately benefited African-Americans because it brought them to America, or that they were better off under slavery than they are now. Remember, for example, rebellious Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's assertion that black Americans were "better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things," or conservative politicos including Michele Bachmann signing a pro-family pledge reminiscing fondly about the intact family lives of slaves.

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 black Americans from their ancestors and heritage in Africa is an irreversible trauma.

These are tough facts to confront kids with, especially young kids, but it's better to start with small doses of truth rather than sowing the seeds for "smiling slave" mythologies. Here are 13 (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.

  • Hyperion
  • A reverent retelling of Harriet Tubman's brave work on the Underground Railroad, written by Carole Boston Weatherford with luminous illustrations by Kadir Nelson.
  • Little, Brown
  • David Drake was a real artist who lived in slavery in South Carolina; 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."
  • Knopf
  • This 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.
  • Scholastic
  • 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, labor and hope for freedom in the slave quarters.
  • Jump at the Sun
  • 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.
  • Scholastic
  • 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.
  • Atheneum
  • 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.
  • Dell
  • 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.
  • Scholastic
  • 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.
  • Scholastic
  • 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.
  • Hyperion
  • 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.
  • Scholastic
  • 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.
  • Schwartz
  • 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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