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Juneteenth Reading List for All Ages

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • June 18, 2020


On June 19, 1865, Union Troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, the last stop on their tour to ensure the liberation of enslaved persons in the Confederate United States. The delivered proclamation promised "an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves." Slaves were encouraged to remain in their homes and work for wages until such true equality of men might be reached—a vision that proved to be maddeningly elusive.

Juneteenth was celebrated heavily in the earliest days of American Reconstruction of the South, but fell to next-to-nothing in the days of Jim Crow. After the Great Migration, amidst the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, Juneteenth celebrations returned in recognition and celebration of the African-American experience. It represents a day of hope. But the history, both before and after this day, is fraught with pain and conflict. Here we present 12 books, for a range of ages, shedding light on this difficult subject.

Never Too Young

As we talk to kids about the complicated issues around race, we can't omit the ugly history of slavery. These picture books present child-friendly stories without sugarcoating the truth.

The Bell Rang by James E. Ransome
With spare prose and striking illustrations, this picture book effectively conveys the brutality and despair of slavery from a young girl's perspective. Each day is the same for her and her family. Until the day her older brother is suddenly gone and, though sad, she dares to hope that his bid for freedom has been successful.

Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome
An evocative poem and stunning watercolors come together to honor an American heroine in this award-winning picture book. We know her today as Harriet Tubman, but once, she was Minty, a slave girl whose spirit could not be broken.

Almost to Freedom by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Lindy and her doll Sally are never parted. They eat together, sleep together, and even pick cotton together. So, on the night Lindy and her mama run away in search of freedom, Sally goes too.

So Tall Within by Gary D. Schmidt
Sojourner Truth, born into slavery, possessed a mind and a vision that knew no bounds. This picture book biography of the civil rights giant traces her life from her painful childhood to her incredible leadership in pursuing equity for both women and African Americans.

An Impressionable Age

Teens feel things deeply. On the cusp of adulthood, they are uniquely poised to seek out connection points in the world. These YA novels bring history to life in poignant tales of hardship and determination.

Calico Girl by Jerdine Nolan
Set four years before Juneteenth, this middle grade reader tells the story of twelve-year-old Callie Wilcomb and her family as they embark on a harrowing journey to freedom amidst the Civil War.

47 by Walter Mosley
With a deft mixture of speculative and historical fiction, this bestseller features the story of a young slave boy known only as 47. Though chained, branded, and whipped, he finds himself swept up in a struggle for liberation when he meets a mysterious runaway named Tall John.

Copper Sun by Sharon M. Draper
Stolen from her village and sold to the highest bidder, fifteen-year-old Amari has had everything taken from her—except hope. This epic story offers a historically accurate picture of the unfathomable violence of the slave trade.

Crossing Ebenezer Creek by Tonya Bolden
In this exploration of a tragic historic event, siblings Mariah and Zeke, suddenly freed from slavery, join Sherman's march through Georgia. They want to believe that their difficulties are behind them, but more hardship lies ahead.

Never Too Old

As adults who read a lot, we often think we've got it covered. As in: I already read a book about that subject, so I don't need to read another one, right? But each new perspective can be an eye-opening experience. This mix of novels and nonfiction delivers some aha moments.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, this National Book Award-winner centers on a young slave boy living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, who gets caught up with a motley crew of abolitionist soldiers as the nation hurtles toward the Civil War.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, this novel employs elements of magical realism in the story of Cora, a young slave making a run for freedom. It's a fascinating and fanciful exploration of the storied escape route.

Barracoon by Zorah Neale Hurston
Based on extensive interviews with one of the last survivors of the slave trade, this faithful account follows his harrowing story from childhood in Africa to the end of the Civil War. A masterful illustration of the tragedy of slavery.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of sorrow, this spellbinding novel's protagonist has escaped slavery. But eighteen years later she is still haunted by the memories. This bestseller artfully portrays the corrosive, inescapable effects of trauma.

Stony the Road by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The abolition of slavery after the Civil War is a familiar story, as is the civil rights movement. But the century in between remains a mystery. This absorbing history traces the volatile period from the Reconstruction Era to the Harlem Renaissance.

Juneteenth represents a day of hope. Hope for justice, equity, and peace. These are ideals we, as a people, still struggle to attain. Here at ThriftBooks, we hold firm to the belief that knowledge and understanding can open the minds of all to make positive strides forward, today and tomorrow.

Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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