Read Through History V: Slavery & The Civil War

When I learned about slavery as a child, I remember being very inspired by the courage and strength of character of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington and others. Today, there are some amazing picture book biographies available about those who overcame and spoke out against slavery to share with and inspire your children.


Slavery is a tough topic to discuss with young children. For every inspiring story on this booklist, there are stories about people treating each other inhumanely. There are stories of an entire country’s complicity. There are stories of even those opposed to slavery unable to give up the wealth that slavery provided. (See e.g. Thomas Jefferson: A Picture Book Biography by James Cross Giblin, recommended on a previous booklist.) How are we as adults to explain what seems unexplainable? When is the right time to introduce kids to the fact that people are capable of treating each other horribly? The books below offer a good starting place for some difficult, but important, discussions.

Dave the PotterDave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill and Bryan Collier. With spare text and beautiful illustrations, Dave the Potter describes the work of an important American artist Dave. Dave was both a slave and a potter. Ages 5+

Sojourner Truth's Step-Stomp StrideSojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney. With their characteristic energy, Andrea and Brian Pinkney introduce young readers to Sojourner Truth. Sojourner Truth was born a slave. After she was freed from slavery, Sojourner Truth bravely traveled around the country speaking and preaching about the evils of slavery. Andrea Pinkney’s lively prose combined with Brian Pinkney’s lively images paint a picture of a figure with boundless energy. Ages 6+

Fifty Cents and a DreamFifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington by Jabari Asim and Bryan Collier. This inspiring biography describes the determination required for Booker T. Washington to get an education. Booker T. Washington was born a slave at a time when slaves were not permitted to learn to read or write. He overcame substantial obstacles to obtain an education, including walking 500 miles to reach Hampton Institute and working as a janitor to pay his way through college. Ages 6+

Stand Tall Abe LincolnStand Tall, Abe Lincoln by Judith St. George and Matt Faulkner. Many biographies and many picture book biographies have been written about Abraham Lincoln. Stand Tall, Abe Lincoln is an excellent biography that focuses solely on Lincoln’s childhood. Ages 6+

Abe's Honest WordsAbe’s Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Doreen Rappaport and Kadir Nelson. Abe’s Honest Words is my favorite Lincoln picture book biography. It features powerful illustrations by Kadir Nelson that match the weight of the subject matter. Doreen Rappaport’s text succinctly explains Lincoln’s important role in history. Ages 7+

Henry's Freedom BoxHenry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson. A gripping true story about a man who, born a slave, mailed himself to freedom in a box. The first few pages of this story effectively introduce young children to slavery. Ages 7+

Words Set Me FreeWords Set Me Free by Lisa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome. Words Set Me Free introduces readers to Fredrick Douglass. Douglass went to great lengths to learn to read at a time when slaves were prohibited from learning to read. See also Light in the Darkness, another story by the Cline-Ransomes which describes the lengths some slaves went to to learn to read. Ages 7+

UnspokenUnspoken by Henry Cole. A wordless picture book that tells a suspenseful tale about a courageous young girl who discovers and decides to help a runaway slave. Extremely well done. A unique offering about the underground railroad. Ages 7+

Only Passing ThroughOnly Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth by Anne Rockwell and R. Gregory Christie. An excellent biography of Sojourner Truth, an inspiring figure who spoke out against the evils of slavery. Anne Rockwell, who typically writes for younger children, has crafted a story that is pitched perfectly for older children. R. Gregory Christies’s illustrations convey a lot of emotion and stuck with me after I had closed the pages of this book. Ages 8+

Pink and SayPink and Say by Patricia Polacco. A Civil War story about two Union soldiers separated from their units. One soldier who has been wounded during battle is discovered and brought to safety by the other. As with other Patricia Polacco books, Pink and Say features beautiful illustrations and a story that tugs at your heart strings. It is among Polacco’s best. Ages 8+

MintyMinty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman by Alan Schroeder and Jerry Pinkney. This is my favorite Harriet Tubman biography. Good storytelling and the focus on her childhood will hook kids. While Minty focuses solely on Harriet Tubman’s childhood, it foreshadows the path she will take as an adult leading slaves to freedom. Ages 8+

The Civil War for KidsThe Civil War for Kids: A History With 21 Activities by Janis Herbert. This book is packed with information and activities about the Civil War. While your average 8-year-old is not going to pick this book up and read it for fun, the writing is clear, engaging and aimed at kids. The Civil War for Kids is a good choice for teachers and kids interested in learning more about the Civil War. Ages 8+

Heart and SoulHeart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson. This picture book — which chronicles African American history beginning with the birth of the United States and continuing through the civil rights movement — is not to be missed. The question is when and how to share this book with kids. Heart and Soul is longer than your standard picture book, with chapters devoted to 1. Declaration of Independence, 2. Slavery, 3. Abolition, etc. You could read the first four chapters of this book at the same time that you read the other books on this booklist. On the other hand, this story feels like it should be read in one sitting. If you choose to read it all at once, it may fit better in a lesson on the civil rights movement. A fantastic read aloud! Ages 8+

Chapter Books:

Meet AddyMeet Addy Despite the demure cover, Meet Addy is an intense and suspenseful story about a young girl Addy and her mother’s escape from slavery. This is the first of six books in this American Girl series. The following five books in this series chronicle life just after Addy and her mother have escaped from slavery and introduce readers to some of the challenges slaves who escaped to the North encountered. Ages 7+ 

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. FiggThe Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick. An energetic Civil War novel. The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg offers the perfect mix of humor and adventure to entertain kids and information about the Civil War to educate kids. Ages 8+


My poor kids do not look excited about having their picture taken this week. They were very business-like about it, obligingly posing with their books as a favor to me. They do continue to enjoy reading through history. Their favorites on this booklist are Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco and Meet Addy by Connie Porter.

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This entry was posted in Ages 6+, Ages 7+, Ages 8+ and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Read Through History V: Slavery & The Civil War

  1. Lynola says:

    I have read “Henry’s Freedom Box” to my Kindergarten class (5 and 6 year olds) the past few years and while it is a sad story, it is not too graphic so they can handle the subject matter. It is one of the most serious books that I read to them.

  2. These books look awesome! I have a slavery book list I’d love to share with you as well. This was our 5th grade slavery unit that we did in public school.

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