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.

The books I picked & why

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The Lemming Condition

By Alan Arkin, Joan Sandin (illustrator),

Book cover of The Lemming Condition

Why 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.

Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust

By Eve Bunting,

Book cover of Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust

Why 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.    

The People Could Fly: The Picture Book

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

Book cover of The People Could Fly: The Picture Book

Why 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.

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

By Ashley Bryan,

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

Why 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.  

How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball

By David Shannon,

Book cover of How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball

Why 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in African Americans, the Holocaust, and folklore?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about African Americans, the Holocaust, and folklore.

African Americans Explore 403 books about African Americans
The Holocaust Explore 162 books about the Holocaust
Folklore Explore 144 books about folklore

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom, Rootwork: Using the Folk Magick of Black America for Love, Money, and Success, and Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings From the Federal Writers' Project by Zora Neale Hurston if you like this list.