The 23rd August is International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Over a period of 400 years there were over 15 million victims of the transatlantic slave trade including millions of children. This day is about remembering those who suffered in unimaginable ways, and crucially it is about raising awareness of the dangers of racism today.
Here we share our pick of books that educate children about slavery and apartheid in an age appropriate way. Many of these are ‘torch under the duvet’ stories that are truly hard to put down with compelling characters who transport the reader to another world.
Every story is one of courage and hope showing the best in human nature as well as the worst, and every protagonist is an inspiration.
Books for 6-7 year olds
Harriet Tubman (Little People, Big Dreams)
By Isabel Sanchez Vegara, illustrated by Pili Aguado
Frances Lincoln, 2018
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery on a plantation in Maryland, USA in the 1820s. Despite incredible hardship she helped her family to escape to the north of the country. Although she reached safety herself she still made the dangerous journey back to the south many, many times in order to bring others to freedom. Thanks to her bravery and strength hundreds of slaves were saved through a secret movement called the Underground Railroad.
The book is written and presented sensitively for young children and includes real historic photos at the back. If you would like to find out more about Harriet Tubman for your own interest there are many short documentaries on YouTube and you could also watch the 2009 film, Harriet.
Hammering for Freedom
By Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illustrated by John Holyfield
Lee & Low, 2018
This is the true story of an enslaved man called William “Bill” Lewis. As a young boy William became a skilled blacksmith and was able to earn enough money to buy his own freedom but he could not afford to buy the freedom of his family. William worked tirelessly to try to earn enough money to buy their freedom, opening his own shop and saving for many years. Eventually, one by one, he succeeded in purchasing the freedom of every member of his family.
William never lost hope and his perseverance and love for his family is inspirational.
Books for children aged 7+
By Catherine Johnson
This is the fast-paced, fictional story of Nathaniel (or ‘Nat’) who is a slave living on a plantation in Jamaica with his family. His master forces him to leave his family and move to England with him. Nat is distraught but there is one silver lining – he has heard that in England slaves are freed and he hopes that as a free person he can earn enough money to buy his family’s freedom. However, when he sets foot on English soil he discovers this rumour isn’t true and so he decides to run.
It’s a story of friendship, kindness and humour but at the same time there are heart thumping scenes of close shaves and narrow escapes. This is a very exciting book and it is educational too with real historical characters and events woven into the plot.
Freedom won the 2019 Little Rebels Award.
Unheard Voices: An Anthology of Stories and Poems
Edited by Malorie Blackman
Random House, 2007
The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 made the slave trade illegal in Britain. Although it was a huge step towards emancipation, in reality it was many years before slavery in this form ended. Even today the government is still working to end Modern Slavery.
Malorie Blackman has compiled an anthology of short stories and poems from renowned writers alongside personal accounts from freed slaves. Her book ensures that we continue to remember those who suffered brutality and misery for many, many years at the hands of other human beings and it also celebrates the work of great black writers.
Journey to Jo’burg
By Beverley Naidoo
This is the story of thirteen-year-old Naledi and her little brother Tiro who live with their grandmother in a small, impoverished village. Frightened that their baby sister Dineo will die of starvation and sickness the two children decide to run away to Johannesburg to find their mother who works there as a maid.
Set against the background of apartheid, Naledi and Tiro’s journey illustrates the grim realities of the system. The rich, privileged life of their mother’s mistress contrasts with the miseries of the children’s existence – the poverty of the segregated ‘bantustans’, the pass laws, and the breakup of black families.
This is a sobering read but it is written in a sensitive way that is suitable for children aged 9 upwards.
The Kidnapped Prince: The Life of Olaudah Equiano
By Ann Cameron
Yearling Books, 2000
Ann Cameron has adapted the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave. His autobiography was originally published in 1789 and was a bestseller at the time.
At the age of eleven, Olaudah was kidnapped from his home in Benin, Western Africa. He spent eleven years as a slave in the West Indies, the USA and England. In vivid scenes, Olaudah describes the horror of his capture, the savage conditions on board the slave ship and his auction and enforced labour. Eventually Olaudah was able to buy his own freedom by trading on the side.
Cameron has made the original story accessible for young readers and at the same time maintained the spirit of the original. It is a detailed and compelling read that draws children into Olaudah’s world establishing a deep sense of empathy.
Discover more about the slave trade
Although many museums are currently closed, here’s a list for future reference. Note that the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool has a 3D virtual tour on their website.
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