Slavery in Picture Books

slavery awareness

I love exposing my kids to all kinds of subjects through picture books but for a long time I avoided books about slavery. I would see a book in the library that caught my eye but I would not share it with my kids. I guess somehow I thought I could keep all the ugliness in the world away from them. Maybe if they didn’t know about it they would stay innocent and good longer, forever. But as they get older, my kids are 5 and 8, this thinking starts to seem more and more like denial to me. So I don’t do that anymore. Now we read them and feel feelings and my kids ask questions that I often don’t have answers for. Like how could slavery be acceptable here. How was it ever legal to kidnap young people, treat them like property, abuse them. I don’t know.

Here are a few picture books that we have read recently and found compelling.

The fist book is The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington’s Slave Finds Freedom by Emily Arnold McCully who has written and illustrated a number of wonderful nonfiction picture books including The Secret Cave I wrote about here. What I find particularly disturbing about this story is that our first president and his wife were slave owners. People that were instrumental in bringing about America’s freedom were personally denying freedom to others. And while Martha trusted Oney with her personal work she took her from her family, denied her education, income, and even had plans to leave her to her married granddaughter once she died. She could be mistreated or sold to someone abusive. This is what caused Oney to plan her escape.

Next is Way Up and Over Everything by Alice McGill and illustrated by Jude Daly. The delicate illustrations caught my eye and that it is based on a folk tale. As a group of slaves are hard at work on a plantation they see new slaves arrive from Africa. Only this new group decide not to stay and as the plantation owners chase after them they simply fly away.

And also Never Forgotten by Patricia McKissack and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon which is a powerful story with powerful illustrations written in verse. This book broke my heart. It is the first book I have seen told from the perspective of a parent of a kidnapped African boy, in this case a single, loving father. Dinga is teaching his son the blacksmithing trade and one day he sends him to gather wood. Musafa never returns. Dinga is distraught but overtime comforted by what he hears of his son from his friends: earth, fire, water, and wind.

These stories are really about courage, hope, and coping. They are inspiring and have inspired me to read and share more stories like these with my kids. Please share your favorite books about slavery and Africa American perseverance.


I'm a practical mom inspired by nature & I enjoy sharing ideas that encourage kids' innate curiosity & creativity. Interested in subscribing? Check out the blue box at the top of my sidebar. I'm also a wannabe author/illustrator & product designer by day. Let's connect! If you purchase through my Amazon links I get a small commission at no additional cost to you (thanks for supporting Doodles and Jots)! And remember to always credit your source here & elsewhere on the internet.


  1. That is a difficult subject, and one I haven’t explored much at all. I do remember standing in a place at Cambridge University where one of the great debates on slavery took place that was a turning point in ending the slave trade.

  2. These all sound like excellent books! I read “To Be A Slave” by Julius Lester when I was 8 years old and it had a huge impact on me. Even though a lot of the content was over my sheltered head (the book is a collection of firsthand accounts of former slaves) it helped me understand this painful piece of American history.
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