Struggle for Freedom

Book Links: January 2000 (v.9 no.3)

Slavery to Reconstruction

by Joy L. Lowe and Kathryn I. Matthew

Historical literature for older readers captures students’ attention, excites them about the past, and helps them understand the importance of individuals in our society. These books motivate students to go beyond the walls of the classroom and the required reading. Events in American history take on new meaning as students discover real and fictitious characters who suffered for freedoms they take for granted.

Through middle-grade and young adult novels that capture the intimate, ordinary, and often fascinating lives of their characters, students empathize with other young people who lived lives that were at once different and hauntingly the same. The harsh, courageous lives of Sarny and Nightjohn, in Paulsen’s books, are interwoven as they endure cruel punishments for learning to read and write and for teaching other slaves. Students learn from Clotee in McKissack’s
A Picture of Freedom that real freedom is being able to make choices.

The Day Fort Sumter Was Fired On reveals how entire families went to war and lived together in the military camps surrounded by war. Reeder’s
Across the Lines and Wisler’s
The Drummer Boy of Vicksburg portray the lives of ordinary young men whose lives were forever altered by the Civil War. Such real and fictional narratives enhance student understanding of these times and conditions.

Actual photographs, diary entries, documents, and posters enable students to realize that these long-ago events actually happened to young adults much like themselves. The McKissacks’
Rebels against Slavery and Gorrell’s
North Star to Freedom tell their stories through artifacts from the period. Three-dimensional artifacts, such as replicas of notes, deeds of emancipation, and checks in payment for work done by former slaves, are included in the design of Thomas’
Lest We Forget.

The books profiled below were selected because they present accurate material—both in fiction and nonfiction—in readable, engaging formats. They educate students’ hearts and spirits as well as provide impetus for lively class discussions on the moral dilemmas faced by these characters. Reading and discussing the past can help young adults find their own place in the present.


Hansen, Joyce.
The Captive. 1994. 192p. Scholastic, $13.95 (0-590-41625-1); paper, $3.50 (0-590-41624-3).

Gr. 5–up. Kofi, the son of an Ashanti chief, is captured by slavers and transported from Africa to Massachusetts. After being sold to a farmer, this young man, who had lived the privileged life of a chief’s son, must adjust to being owned as property. Years later, when given the chance to return to Africa, Kofi wants desperately to return to the only happiness he has ever known, but he is torn between the known comfort, security, and safety of his present life and his undying passion to return to his African homeland.

McKissack, Patricia C.
A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl, Belmont Plantation, Virginia, 1889. 1997. 132p. Scholastic, $9.95 (0-614-25386-1).

Gr. 9–12. Clotee learns to read and write while fanning the young master as he studies. When she reads and writes F-R-E-E-D-O-M, she cannot visualize what it means. She struggles throughout the book to get pictures in her head to help her comprehend the word. She learns of the Underground Railroad and how it helps slaves escape to freedom, and she comes to realize that freedom means having choices. Now, she has to make a choice. Should she escape on the Underground Railroad, or stay on Belmont Plantation and become a conductor on the Underground Railroad?

McKissack, Patricia C., and Frederick L. McKissack.
Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters. 1994. 80p. Scholastic, $17.95 (0-590-43027-0).

Gr. 4–6. The stark contrast between the lives of the masters and the lives of the slaves is beautifully portrayed in illustrations and text. Months before Christmas, the “Big Times,” the slaves are busy preparing the “big house” and the plantation for the holidays, working from sunup to sundown. When darkness falls, they return to the quarters and prepare for their own “Big Times.” In the big house, no expense is spared in getting ready for Christmas; there is an abundance of food and decorations. In the quarters, they gather what they can and make the best of what they have as they complete their preparations.

McKissack, Patricia C., and Frederick L. McKissack.
Rebels against Slavery. 1996. 176p. Scholastic, $14.95 (0-590-45735-7); paper, $5.99 (0-590-66259-7).

Gr. 5–9. This book covers 250 years of African American history and discusses the roles of such notable figures as Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, and Gabriel Prosser, a Virginia slave influenced by Toussaint-Louverture. Well-known material is presented, as well as many lesser-known details about the history of slavery.

Paulsen, Gary.
Nightjohn. 1993. 96p. Delacorte, $14.95 (0-385-30838-8); paper, $4.50 (0-440-21936-1).

Gr. 6–up. The story is told through the voice of a young slave girl, Sarny, just before the Civil War. She tells of her experiences with Nightjohn, a slave who repeatedly gives up his freedom to return south to teach other slaves to read and write. Not only does he teach them to read and write but, more important, he teaches them how to teach others to read and write.

Paulsen, Gary.
Sarny, a Life Remembered. 1997. l92p. Delacorte, $15.95 (0-385-32195-3).

Gr. 6–up. A recently widowed young woman, Sarny, and a friend begin the search for Sarny’s children, who were sold as the Civil War was winding down. Learning that they had been sold to a man in New Orleans, Sarny and her friend begin the long walk there. Along the way, they meet a woman from New Orleans who changes both of their lives forever. The reality of the Civil War and its aftermath is seen from Sarny’s point of view.

Rinaldi, Ann.
Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley. 1996. 352p. Harcourt, $12 (0-15-200876-4); paper, $6 (0-15-200877-2).

Gr. 4–9. Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped and sold into slavery by a jealous uncle. Her masters encouraged and supported her in learning to read and write poetry, and she became America’s first black poet. Her special treatment and education set her apart from the other slaves; however, being a slave, she was not completely accepted into the white society in which she lived. In order to have her poetry published, she traveled to Europe with the young master, knowing that, once she set foot on European soil, she would be free.

Thomas, Velma M.
Lest We Forget. 1997. 32p. Crown, $29.95 (0-609-60030-3).

Gr. 7–up. The author, creator and curator of the Black Holocaust Exhibit, shares her passion for this period in history through this powerful book. The exhibit provided the documents and photographs that artfully chronicle the harsh treatment and tenacious spirits of the millions of enslaved Africans. The subject is treated without sensationalism, factually, with careful documentation.

Walter, Mildred P.
Second Daughter: The Story of a Slave Girl. 1996. 176p. Scholastic, $15.95 (0-590-48282-3).

Gr. 7–up. Elizabeth Freeman (also known as Mum Bett) is a house slave and a favorite in the family of her owner. While serving her master’s guests, she listens carefully to their conversations and learns that in Massachusetts, where she lives, slavery is illegal. However, that law has never been tested. Freedom to Mum Bett is an inalienable right that she eventually decides to exercise.

Underground Railroad

Gorrell, Gena K.
North Star to Freedom: The Story of the Underground Railroad. 1996. l84p. Delacorte, $17.95 (0-385-32319-0).

Gr. 5–up. Young readers will discover that the Underground Railroad was neither underground nor an actual railroad, but was a network of diverse people in different locations, all with the common purpose of leading slaves to freedom. The frontispiece of this book contains a fascinating map depicting the many different routes followed by slaves on the Underground Railroad. While the main focus is on the Underground Railroad, this title also provides factual information on the history of slavery from ancient Greece and Rome to the present.

Knapp, Sawyer K.
The Underground Railroad in American History. 1997. 128p. Enslow, $18.95 (0-89490-885-5).

Gr. 5–up. This book describes the trials and imprisonment of people caught helping runaway slaves. So strongly do these individuals believe in what they are doing that, once released from prison, they continue to help slaves escape. Freedom did not mean the end of the slaves’ troubles, and this book also chronicles their continuing struggles.

Turner, Glennette T.
Running for Our Lives. Illus. by Samuel Byrd. 1994. 208p. Holiday, $16.95 (0-8234-1121-4).

Gr. 4–8. This is a harrowing story of a family’s escape from slavery via the Underground Railroad. Thirteen-year-old Luther, his parents, and his little sister, Carrie, along with a baby whose mother had been sold to another slave owner, flee slavery. In an attempt to avoid slave catchers, the family separates, hoping to be reunited when the journey north ends. Along the way, Luther and Carrie meet up with their aunt and her husband and, eventually, settle with them on a farm in Canada.

Civil War

Haskins, Jim.
The Day Fort Sumter Was Fired On: A Photo History of the Civil War. 1993. 96p. Scholastic, paper, $6.95 (0-590-46397-7).

Gr. 5–7. Unknown to many students is the part children played in the Civil War. Young people not only made up the fife-and-drum corps, they also served as officers’ aides, helped in hospitals, and gathered the wounded. Many soldiers brought their families with them when they enlisted, and struggled to maintain a normal life while engulfed in the war. Women cooked, washed clothes, and tended the wounded; some also fought alongside the soldiers, disguised as men. The conversational tone of the text enhances the gripping photographs that detail lives changed forever by war.

Reeder, Carol.
Across the Lines. 1997. 224p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16 (0-689-81133-0); paper, $4.50 (0-380-73073-1).

Gr. 4–7. When the Union soldiers approach his home in the South, Edward, a young man of wealth and privilege, and his family flee. Simon, Edward’s personal slave, hides and stays behind, knowing that the triumphant arrival of the Union troops will mean that he gains freedom. Edward begins to understand the paradox presented by the fact that his best friend is also his slave. At the end of the war, the boys are reunited, in this novel packed with vivid details.

Wisler, G. Clifton. The Drummer Boy of Vicksburg. 1997. 132p. Dutton, $15.99 (0-525-67537-X); paper, $4.99 (0-14-038673-4).

Gr. 7–up. This story of Orion Howe of Illinois is based on the life of a real drummer boy in the Union army. The events of Orion’s life are made believable by the details Wisler shares, including the role of the fife-and-drum corps during the war.


Hansen, Joyce.
I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl, Mars Bluff, South Carolina, 1865. 1997. 208p. Scholastic, $9.95 (0-590-84913-1).

Gr. 4–9. This book provides a glimpse of life on a plantation during Reconstruction. Patsy, newly free, comes to understand what freedom means as the Freedmen’s Bureau representatives explain work contracts to the former slaves. The slaves demand a school for their children and land of their own to farm. When the promised teacher does not come, Patsy becomes the teacher.

Robinet, Harriett Gillem.
Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule. 1998. 132p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16 (0-689-83078-X).

Gr. 4–8. After serving in the Civil War, Gideon, a runaway slave, returns to the plantation he fled, in order to find his mother and brother. General Sherman’s promise that freed men will receive “forty acres and maybe a mule” rings in his ears, and he plans to start a farm with his family. When he learns that his mother is dead, he sets out with Pascal, his brother, and Nelly, Pascal’s young friend, in search of the Freedmen’s Bureau they hope will give them land. Along with an older gentleman and his granddaughter, whom they meet on their way, they form a family and establish their claim. When a poor white family settles near them, the two households help each other through sickness and danger.

Smith, John D.
Black Voices from Reconstruction, 1865–1877. 1996. l76p. Millbrook, $27.40 (1-56294-583-1).

Gr. 7–up. Letters and black-and-white photographs portray the devastating effects of the Civil War on the lives of many former slaves. Without land or a trade, they cannot support themselves and so are forced to work as laborers on plantations. Oftentimes, they are treated no better than they were as slaves. The freed slaves attempt to reunite their families by posting ads and offering rewards for information on family members from whom they had been separated. Former slaves who travel north face the hostile northern climate and—frequently—citizens of the North who do not welcome them. The Civil War gave blacks their freedom, but did very little to change their daily lives.

Discussing the Novels

In McKissack’s
A Picture of Freedom, Clotee learns that freedom means having choices. She must choose between escaping on the Underground Railroad and staying on Belmont Plantation and becoming a conductor on the Underground Railroad. What factors contribute to her discision?

In Paulsen’s
Nightjohn, Delie and Nightjohn suffer physical punishment because Sarny has learned to read and write. When Nightjohn returns, Sarny must decide whether to join him at his school to continue to learn and teach others. Discuss why she decides to join Nightjohn.

Linking the Novels

The Drummer Boy of Vicksburg, Reeder’s
Across the Lines, and Haskins’
The Day Fort Sumter Was Fired On provide keen insight into the impact of the war on the lives of young people. At very young ages, these individuals had to decide whether to support or denounce slavery, and then whether or not to join the armies. In America, young teens no longer go to war. What are some of the reasons for this prohibition?

After Reconstruction, former slaves learned that their struggles were not over. Political, social, and economic challenges faced them, along with the realization that the promised freedom was not easily won. Consider how and to what extent minorities today face many of these same challenges.

Freedom is a predominant theme in many of these novels. It is essential that the characters define freedom in order to discover it. Clotee discovered that freedom was the ability to make choices. To Nightjohn, freedom meant being able to read and teach others to read. In Robinet’s
Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule, freedom meant different things—respect, dignity, education—to each of the characters. Nelly compared it to a planted seed that grew a little every day. Pascal decided that freedom was in the heart and could not be taken away. Discuss how and why freedom has different meanings for different people.

Joy L. Lowe and
Kathryn I. Matthew are both assistant professors in the College of Education at Louisana Tech University, Ruston, Louisiana.