The librarian at the check-out desk looked at me a little strangely when I picked up a large stack of picture books. She knows I don’t have children and beautifully illustrated thirty page books are not the typical volumes found on my library record. I’m working on a project, I explain to her…and she smiles.
When I was kid, Black History Month and African American History Month – though official in 1970 – were just starting to be recognized and celebrated in our local California community a couple decades later. I learned about the slavery, the underground railroad, and emancipation in generalized history books from the children’s section in the library. Now, over a decade later and with new emphasis on ethic histories, I wondered what could be found on the juvenile shelves.
My mom always read to my brothers and I, and she had found some awesome history picture storybooks for us – way back when. So I asked her if she would like to read with me now. We read aloud, discussed, and found wonderful books focused on African American history that have been more recently released. These books feature positive role models and historical introductions to slavery and the underground railroad in age-appropriate formats for youngsters.
I hope they will inspire you to pick up a book and share history with a child. There’s no better time to kindle the spark and build the next generation of historians. So in the spirit of helping very young “emerging” students of history, here are my top eight favorite books about the Underground Railroad and its heroes and heroines.
By Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson; 2006
This story emphasizes Harriet Tubman’s faith and spiritual belief in a mission to free herself and then free others trapped in slavery while revealing the difficulties she faced on her journeys.
By Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome; 2017
Beautifully illustrated and thoughtfully written, this book traces the many roles and names of Harriet Tubman in poetry form, including conductor, spy, and suffragist. A strong introduction to a remarkable American woman.
By Glennette Tilley Turner, illustrated by Susan Keeter; 2006
Who doesn’t love a good apple? Based on an anecdote from Harriet Tubman herself, this story tells her story, featuring desires for freedom and the generosity to share with others.
By Elizabeth Van Steenwyk, illustrated by Anna Rich; 2018
Somewhere in the antebellum South, a grandfather, father, and son have taught each other a song – a hammered pattern on an anvil which signals safety and freedom to those hiding nearby and traveling on the Underground Railraod. The young boy believes that one day the song will call him to find liberty…
By Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Rod Brown; 2012
Recommended for older children, this book of poetry and painting takes young readers on a journey along the Underground Railroad, through the brutalities of slavery to the decision point to run for freedom and the difficult trip north to Canada.
By Sally M. Walker, illustrated by Sean Qualls; 2012
A detailed children’s book about Henry Brown’s life and decision to mail himself to freedom. Songs and spirituals serve as a unifying theme, taking inspiration from the song that he sang when he finally arrived in Philadelphia.
By Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson; 2007
A short book with engaging illustrations introduces younger readers to the story of Henry “Box” Brown and his dangerous and exciting journey in a box to freedom; it emphasizes themes that young children can relate to – like birthdays and family.
By Tonya Cherie Hegamin, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera; 2009
A story of a mother’s love, a quilt, and the beginning of a journey on the Underground Railroad. Very sweet and poignant – my personal favorite in this set of wonderful books.