The best children’s books about freedom

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson Author Of The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem's Greatest Bookstore
By Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Who am I?

I am a former children’s librarian who writes books for children and young adults. I love history, especially black history. We didn’t get much in school when I was a child, so I’ve been catching up on some of what I missed. I am particularly drawn to under-told stories about people who deserve more recognition for their contributions. I’m proud that some of those people are members of my own family.

I wrote...

The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem's Greatest Bookstore

By Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, R. Gregory Christie (illustrator),

Book cover of The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem's Greatest Bookstore

What is my book about?

In the 1930s, my great uncle Lewis Michaux had an itch he needed to scratch — a book itch.  He started the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem. Lewis told his son Lewis Jr. to think for himself and never stop asking questions. Lewis believed knowledge is power and a pathway to freedom for all, especially the black community. One way to gain knowledge and become an independent thinker is through reading, which is why Lewis created his bookstore. I believe freedom, at its core, is all about thinking. You can learn more about Lewis in my book for older readers, No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller.

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The books I picked & why

The Lemming Condition

By Alan Arkin, Joan Sandin (illustrator),

Book cover of The Lemming Condition

Why did I love this book?

The time is nearing for the lemming community to take the great leap—to run to the cliffs and keep going, plunging into the water below. Why? Because that’s what lemmings do. In his brilliant allegory, Alan Arkin explores what happens when one young lemming asks, “Can lemmings swim?” What happens when one suddenly realizes he’s uncomfortable with following the crowd and has the courage to say, This isn’t right and I don’t want any part of it. Arkin’s book has always been a source of hope for me, hope and belief in the power of the individual resisting what sometimes feels like society run amok.

By Alan Arkin, Joan Sandin (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lemming Condition as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The wonderful story of Bubber the Lemming that teaches everyone something about conformity and individual values

Book cover of Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust

Why did I love this book?

When the Terrible Things come looking for “every creature with feathers,” the other forest animals are nervous and thankful they don’t have feathers. The unfeathered even find reasons to believe the feathered had it coming and the forest may actually be better off without them. The Terrible Things come back, again and again, leaving one remaining little rabbit thinking, “if only we creatures had stuck together, it could have been different.”  Everyone who loves freedom should read this book and take it to heart. Freedom is fragile. I am moved by Bunting’s powerful reminder that every one of us must stand strong and stick together, even in the face of more powerful forces.    

By Eve Bunting, Eve Bunting,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Terrible Things as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The animals in the clearing were content until the Terrible Things came, capturing all creatures with feathers.

Little Rabbit wondered what was wrong with feathers, but his fellow animals silenced him. "Just mind your own business, Little Rabbit. We don't want them to get mad at us."

A recommended text in Holocaust education programs across the United States, this unique introduction to the Holocaust encourages young children to stand up for what they think is right, without waiting for others to join them.

Ages 6 and up

The People Could Fly: The Picture Book

By Virginia Hamilton, Leo Dillon (illustrator), Diane Dillon (illustrator)

Book cover of The People Could Fly: The Picture Book

Why did I love this book?

“They say the people could fly. They say that long ago in Africa some of the people knew magic. And they could walk up on the air like climbin on a gate. And they flew like blackbirds over the fields.” These beautiful words and those that follow have remained in my heart from the moment I first discovered this story in Hamilton’s 1985 folktale collection. The inspiring messages of hope, faith, and the innate desire for freedom are powerfully conveyed through Hamilton’s fine storytelling and the Dillons’ elegant art. I love the feeling of triumph as “old and young who were called slaves” join hands, rise in the air, and fly away to freedom.

By Virginia Hamilton, Leo Dillon (illustrator), Diane Dillon (illustrator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The People Could Fly as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Virginia Hamilton's Coretta Scott King Honor book is the breathtaking fantasy tale of slaves who possessed ancient magic that enabled them to fly away to freedom. And it is a moving tale of those who did not have the opportunity to “fly” away, who remained slaves with only their imaginations to set them free as they told and retold this tale.

Leo and Diane Dillon's powerful illustrations accompany Hamilton's voice as it sings out from the pages with the soaring cadences that echo the story tellers of her childhood as the granddaughter of a fugitive slave. 

Awards for The People…

Book cover of Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life

Why did I love this book?

Based on actual slave documents, Ashley Bryan, through his accomplished paintings and poetry, imagines the lives of eleven men and women sold at auction in 1828. We learn the market prices of the eleven, but Bryan goes deep, showing us the true value of each unique individual. The soul and spirit of this lovely book lay in the astounding resilience, the survival of hope and dreams in the hearts and minds of these enslaved people. Amidst the ugliness of slavery, Bryan manages to leave me uplifted, even joyful — joyful about the unwavering human belief in and desire for freedom.  

By Ashley Bryan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Freedom Over Me as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Imagine being looked up and down and being valued as less than chair. Less than an ox. Less than a dress. Maybe about the same as...a lantern.

You, an object. An object to sell.

In his gentle yet deeply powerful way, Ashley Bryan goes to the heart of how a slave is given a monetary value by the slave owner, tempering this with the one thing that CAN'T be bought or sold-dreams. Inspired by the actual will of a plantation owner that lists the worth of each and every one of his "workers", Bryan has created collages around that document,…

Book cover of How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball

Why did I love this book?

In Georgie Radbourn’s America, baseball (even the mention of it) is illegal, Winter is eternal and everyone over the age of eight must work in factories. All this because of dictator and embittered former baseball player Boss Swaggart. The people fear Swaggart and his Factory Police too much to resist. Georgie is born into this world, so he knows nothing else. Still, something in him rebels.

Shannon’s Orwellian tale is about baseball, yes, but it’s more than it appears (as is true of the best books). It’s about how we often don’t grasp how much we love something until it’s taken away. It’s about how, without the things that give us hope, spring never comes. It’s about how one brave person can triumph and inspire courage in others.

By David Shannon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Bestselling Caldecott Honor artist David Shannon tells the story of a boy who overcomes a cruel tyrant using his love of baseball.

Chosen as a NEW YORK TIMES Best Illustrated Children's Book, HOW GEORGIE RADBOURN SAVED BASEBALL was published more than a decade ago, and it was the very first book award-winner David Shannon wrote and illustrated himself. Using his vast experience as an editorial illustrator, Shannon told an expressive, emotional tale of a time when spring no longer existed, and it was always winter in America. Why? Because an angry dictator declared baseball illegal, and once-happy citizens fell into…

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