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A Juneteenth Reading List

19 Inspiring, Informative Reads for All Ages

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • June 10, 2022


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 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 19 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 mustn't omit the ugly history of slavery and racial inequity. These picture books present child-friendly stories without sugarcoating the truth.

Opal Lee and What it Means to be Free by Alice Faye Duncan
Nicknamed the "Grandmother of Juneteenth," Opal Lee was spurred to activism as a youth when her new home was burned down on Juneteenth by a crowd angered by the Black family's presence in a mostly white neighborhood. Opal spent the rest of her life taking a stand for equality and unity.

Freedom Bird by Jerdine Nolen
Enslaved siblings Millicent and John grew up on old tales of how their ancestors had flown away to freedom just as free and easy as a bird. Then one day a mysterious bird appears in their lives. The bird transforms them and gives them the courage to set their plan into motion and escape to freedom.

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 one day, her older brother escapes 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

Preteens and teens feel things deeply. On the cusp of adulthood, they are uniquely poised to seek out connection points in the world. These books aimed at middle grade and YA readers bring history to life in poignant tales of hardship and determination.

Dark Sky Rising: Reconstruction and the Dawn of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates Jr. with Tonya Bolden
Real-life stories drive the narrative of this account of America during and after Reconstruction, one of history's most pivotal and misunderstood chapters. In a book that is illuminating and timely, readers experience the resiliency of the African-American people during times of progress and betrayal.

47 by Walter Mosley
With a deft mixture of speculative and historical fiction, this bestseller features the story 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.

The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship by Deborah Willis
Though both the Union and Confederate armies excluded African American men from their initial calls to arms, many men who eventually served were Black. This stunning collection of photographs, letters, and other personal materials offers an intimate portrait of their invaluable contributions.

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 the heartache of slavery is behind them, but more hardship lies ahead.

The Book of Awesome Black Americans by Monique L. Jones
The oft-overlooked achievements of Black Americans range from athletic to artistic, literary to scientific. These stories celebrate the successes made possible by challenging and changing the American landscape. These accomplishments come not by shedding their diversity, but by wearing their colors proudly.

Never Too Old

As adults who read a lot, we sometimes 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. Here are some titles that deliver some searing a-ha moments.

On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed
Weaving together American history, dramatic family accounts, and searing episodes of memoir, the historian author offers her view of the country's long road to Juneteenth. A native Texan, she forges a new and profoundly truthful narrative of her home state, with implications for us all.

She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
As a leading abolitionist, Harriet Tubman's bravery and selflessness has inspired generations in the continuing struggle for civil rights. Here, in the tradition of Notorious RBG, comes a lively, informative, and illustrated tribute to a heroine whose fearlessness and activism still resonates today.

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.

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 slavery, 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.

Watermelon & Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations by Nicole A. Taylor
The 75 delicious dishes presented here are simple, victory garden-driven, and approachable. Recipes cover everything from everyday dining at home to hosting a bounteous Juneteenth celebration, accompanied by thoughtful, moving essays about the meaning of the day.

Juneteenth represents a day of hope—hope for justice, equity, and peace. These are ideals we, as a people, still struggle to achieve. Here at ThriftBooks, we hold firm to the belief that knowledge and understanding will help us become a stronger, kinder, and more peaceful community.

If you have any books to add to this list, please let us know. For daily book recommendations, literary tidbits, and more, follow us on social media: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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